Time Horizon’s leading man Ralph Otteson opens up during a recent interview about the birth of a band, Pandoras Box, the upcoming 3rd album,and everything in-between.
PoP: Hello, Ralph thank you for doing this interview with us.
Ralph: Absolutely! I am so glad to talk to you Thank you!
PoP: You’re the founding member of Time Horizon a California-based Christian, Progressive Crossover AOR band How long have you been a professional musician, and what professional training have you had if any?
Ralph: Well, first I wouldn’t consider myself “pro” because I support my family by working a day job in the high tech industry, but as far as my involvement with music, I would say I have a lot of years working part-time and I have been able to do a lot with limited time. I hope to do more than I have in the past.
PoP: What is your role in Time Horizon and what instruments do you play?
Ralph: I am the keyboardist and principal writer. I also sing background vocals. I think I am the driving force behind the band because I take on most of the responsibilities, so in a sense, I am the leader.
PoP: Tell us about the birth of Time Horizon, how did that come about, and what does this band mean to you?
Ralph: Time Horizonstarted because I had recorded an album with a band I was playing with. we wrote original music. The band was called Iron Clay Poets. We disbanded before finishing the album, but I wanted to finish it. The problem was I had recorded on ADAT digital tape system and could only do 16 tracks at a time for mixdown. I had about 30 tracks of music, so our then drummer knew another drummer that was also an engineer and had a computer system that I could mix it down with. That drummer ended up being the drummer for Time Horizon. He dug the music and after the mix, he wanted to jam on some of the songs….well, we ended up writing the first album.
PoP: What was the defining moment in your life that sparked the eternal flames to become a musician, and was it a particular band or individual?
Ralph: Well, my family are all musicians, we had an upright piano that I would mess around with it but never had any lessons. In 1977 I saw ELP – the Works Tour. The year before a friend played their record and I loved the sound of the synth. When I saw Keith do his thing, I said that’s what I want to do! mind you, I had not yet started playing. I took lessons in my Senioryear and sold my car to by a Fender Rhodes piano so I could play in a band. I learned covers but found writing songs was what I enjoyed most.
PoP: Your first release was released through your label Angelic Noise Records, what was the publics’ perception of the debut Living Water?
Ralph: It was well-received. I started my label because there were a few labels interested in wanting to sign us, but things kind of went weird so I decided to form my label.
PoP: Was Living Water a charity album?
Ralph: I recorded the album with some friends, Bruce was the drummer and we recorded it at his studio. We had all but one song mixed and for several reasons, it sat for a year. it looked like the same thing was happening again with this band. Like before, I took it soon myself to finish it. I had gone to a Christian Men’s conference and saw an organization called Living Water International (LWI). I had lost my job and was feeling worried about how I was going to get by. I sold stock I had from my previous employer funded the album with the intent to give 100% of the sale from physical CDs to LWI to help people in the world that do not have even the most basic need….water. What do I have to complain about? So in a sense yes it was a charity album. I have not financially benefited from it. I considered it a Ministry. The album sales were okay and we were able to help a village in Ghana, Africa install a well, so I would call that a success.
PoP: Tell us about the concept/meaning behind the name of Living Water?
Ralph: Well,the meaning of Living Water is what Jesus is to Christians. He said he can give living water that in us is welling into eternal life. So, along with the purpose behind the album project, it made sense to name the album that.
PoP: What was the most defining moment of Living Water?
Ralph: I think after we wrote the song Life Fantastic. The bass player at the time was Steve Gorley, an amazing musician that studied jazz and I wrote the riff that he just latched onto and would complement the line with some nice runs on the bass which I doubled on the synth. Bruce came up with a great melody and killer drums. after mixing that I sent it off to Randy George as he was putting together a compilation CD for Cprog or Christian Prog Rock. we released it as a single for the CPR3 album. That was great because we made friends which I still hold dear today. If you get a chance to hear it, it’s fantastic! Unitopia, Ted Leonard, and Phil Keaggy are just a few of the artists on that CD.
PoP: Your sophomore album Transitions was released four years later in 2015, how was this different than your debut?
Ralph: That album was called Transitions because it’s just that. Steve Gorley the original bassist traveled back to Cambodia tocontinue his humanitarian work there. He could have stayed here and rocked out with us, but he had a deeper calling and love for the oppressed and poor. He helped the street kids there, preventing child slave labor and trafficking. I found a replacement in Allen White who I played in a band within the ‘80s early ’90s. He fit right in. The original guitar player left and we got help in that area with Dave Miller. Bruce got about 1/2 way through and had to leave for personal reasons…Now I was down a drummer and a singer, so I recruited help from friends David Walliman, Lang Bliss, and a singer from the band Allen and I played with Rich Reif. I had Billy Sherwood mixing and helping me on post-production. So it is the transition to what Time Horizon is now. That album has a lot of great tunes on it. slightly different, but still maintaining a signature sound.
PoP: You formed a partnership with Melodic Revolution Records for the second release, how did that come about and why was it so important for the follow up of Living Water?
Ralph: I wrote a majority of the album, did the leg work in getting it finished, but realized I need help with promotion. I knew Nick Katona and noticed that he did a lot of albums for great causes. I felt we would work well together as I think we share that desire to help bless others through music in a real tangible way. I am a principal writer for the band, a dad and husband, I appreciate MRR and everything they do to help promote. I am not good at that, it’s difficult for me.
PoP: What influences your songwriting lyrically and musically?
Ralph: Great question. I have always loved prog music. Odd time Signatures, blending genres, and of course melody. The first bands for me were in the ‘70s really. ELP was what got me into prog, followed by Yes, then Genesis. I also loved rock like Toto, Queen, Boston, and the like. The ’80s brought me Saga which is a huge influence. Lyrically, I think Saga’s style but the Beatles and Rush. I know that’s all over the place, but my faith is something that is from my inner core, so it is expressed in lyrics. Sometimes more overtly, sometimes more subtle.
PoP: You brought in some big guns for the production portion of the album, I am speaking of Billy Sherwood (Yes, Circa, World Trade) and Major Appelbaum (Nektar, Angra, Lana Lane) how did that come about and why was this essential to this releases?
Ralph: Yeah, with Transitions album I wanted to raise the bar. I had contacted Billy Sherwood as I know he has worked with other bands. I sent him a demo of the song “Prisoner” which was a song written when I was on a band 180 with Allen W. Billy liked the tune and so I started a correspondence with him. because he worked with Tony Kaye in Circa, I asked if he could get Tony to play on it. You have no idea how cool it was for me to hear a Hammond organ from him. I had the Yes album on my turntable for weeks. I still can’t believe he is on Transitions. a huge thrill for me. Billy also played as we decided to do a cover of a World Trade song ” The Moment is Here” We changed some of the lyrics to fit our Christian world view and he was Ok with it. He also plays the lead guitar on the track so another cool thing.
PoP: Billy Sherwood also guested on the album along with David Wallimann, Lang Bliss, Tony Kaye, and Jake Livgren. What was it like to work with these musicians?
Ralph: David Walliman is fantastic to work with, he would pump out these amazing guitar tracks in really fast. I used him first for the song Prisoner but found I kept turning to him for the next tune. It was hard not to. He does quality stuff in record time! Lang and I go back a long time. I knew him in the 80s. We had mutual musician friends and hung out jamming at times. He moved to Nashville and got on with a Christian record label there. He is quite the pro. He toured with Michael W. Smith who is a well-known gospel artist. He met his wife Renee who was a backup singer for Amy Grant. Together they write and produce talent. They released some songs that made the BillboardTop 10 last year. I finally met Tonybackstage after a Yes concert. He was super nice and remembered the song which I was glad! I got Jake to sing the last song after Rich was no longer available. It was on the suggestion of the artist Ken Westphal who did our album artwork. I originally was talking to John Elefante and asked him, but he declined, so Ken mentioned Jake while he sang in Proto-Kaw. Jake was great, I paid for a studio session in Topeka, Kansas and Jake said he would play on the album, his uncle KerryLivgren (Proto-Kaw, Kansas) gave him the thumbs up so that’s good.
PoP: From what we understand the long-awaited 3rd album is 99% complete, why has it taken so long to do another album?
Ralph: Oh, man. We’ll all I can say is first….it’s worth the wait. When Bruce joined back with the band to tour the 2nd album, I said we need a frontman/vocalist. We spent time looking for and auditioning a singer. We were also down a guitar player/utility guy. It took a long time to find people that are up to playing this style of music. If they are good enough, it usually means they are not available. We got a call from a Sacramento-based singer David Mau who heard about us and thought he would be a great fit. He works with Brad Gillis from Night Ranger and Ozzy. He also worked with Derek Sherinian and loves prog! We started rehearsing and did a few shows, but again, had someone leave because of work. back to Square one. It is difficult to find people that want to do original music because there is not much money in it. It seems musicians have to play in Tribute bands to survive, which is kind of sad. All that said, we got some material from our new singer David Mau, once we got into writing mode, we just kept going. we did a lot of music and half of the next album is already done, so the fourth one should not be so long a wait. Could have done a double album, but…
PoP: What’s the album called and why?
Ralph: The new album is still having names considered. We just started the process of getting the artwork started so that might have an impact on the final name. We first thought about a song title, but then the concept of the album something in “3” for the third album. Time Horizon “cubed” maybe…I think it will be a surprise.
PoP: Do you have the same line-up as Transitions?
Ralph: The same lineup for the most part. Bruce G. on drums Bruce sings lead on one song, but Dave is the main guy for that role now. Myself on keys and vocals, Allen White on Bass again, Dave Miller on acoustic and rhythm electric. We had David Walliman do lead but guitar for a song, but that song is one we have decided to release on the next album. Both Bruce and Dave Mau had worked with a guitarist from Sacramento, Michael Gregory. Bruce played with him in the ’80s and Dave most recently. Michael G. was a sought after session musician in Nashville and was approached by Neal Morse to play with him. He was in the middle of finishing a degree so couldn’t do it, but that shows what his abilities are. The tracks by him have been Stellar! Overall this is the best line up to date. I am really excited about it.
PoP: Is it true that Michael Sadler of Saga is doing vocals on a track on this album, what song and how did that come about?
Ralph: Yes, it is! I am super stoked to be able to say that! I have been a long time Saga fan! I met Michael once at Calprog in LA a few years ago. We sat down at lunch break and I was thrilled to talk with him. Later, he and I had a Skype meeting after the release of Transitions. I asked him then if he would be interested in guesting on our next release. He asked me to send him something and if he feels he can do it justice he would. It took me a long time after that writing quite a few songs before I felt I had one that he would fit right in. I intentionally tried to make it Saga-ish sound. He loved it and with his vocals, It sounds like something He would do, so I think mission accomplished!
PoP: Do you have any other special guests appearing on this release, can you give us a hint?
Ralph: The only other special guest is Michael Manring who plays fretless bass on a song in tribute to our first bassist Steve who recently passed We went to see Michael in concert as he was a favorite of Steve’s. It was the last time I saw my friend who helped start Time Horizon so …It seemed fitting and Michael was happy too. I love it as it is a very emotional piece for me. It still is hard for me not to tear up listening.
PoP: How many tracks on the new album? Can you give us a song by song breakdown?
Ralph: Yes, we have seven completed songs, still working on song order, they are in no particular order.
Living for a Better day…Saga like approach with a rock edge. The Great Divide …..a hard-driving rock tune with prog influence. Digital Us…..kind of Rush meets Pink Floyd maybe? Steve”s song “It’s not goodbye”….instrumental with a new-age feel. Razors Edge…..this is to me Spocks Beard meets Mike & the Mechanics. I Hear, I see…….kind of more Toto like, this would be the more Top 40 hit. Time to Wonder…..a ballad that has a Phil Collins approach. really beautiful tune.
PoP: Who is the production team for the 3rd record?
Ralph: We are going to do as much as we can to self-produce. We self-produced the first one, and we have even more experience between myself, Bruce, and David Mau to do this, but I think when you self-produce, it generally takes longer.
PoP: Ken Westphal, who created the band-logo and the artwork for the first two albums has retired since Transitions, who will step up to the plate to continue making album art for great Time Horizon?
Ralph: We have contacted Ed Unitsky and are in the process of starting the artwork. I think he is one of the go-to artists in the Prog community. He does really good work.
PoP: We hear this album will be released in many formats including vinyl, can you tell us what prompted you to press wax on this one?
Ralph: 2 reasons. First, Vinyl is cool, I miss it! It has a vibe, and it’s becoming more popular as a medium to listen to again. We will still have CDs as well. Second, I like the shorter length. Back in the day, bands were releasing albums on a more regular basis partly because instead of having a 74-minutealbum every few years 45 min is a great length. I mentioned the fourth release is in the wings and about half-finished already.
PoP: Do you collect vinyl yourself?
Ralph: I have my collection from years ago still. I have a lot of original LPs. I think the millennials are discovering how great the music was years ago because of the rise in vinyl popularity again….which is very cool. I do have my wish list ofalbums.
PoP: Name 10 albums that should be part of any serious record collection?
Ralph: Wow, that’s a great question! Let me think hmm…I think a mix of styles and genres is important. I have Classical, Jazz, Rock some R&B and some newer Country. Works I have from, Chic Corea to The Fixx. Gino Vanelli to Jean Michel Jare, but here is a list of favorites
1) The Yes Album…Yes 2) And then there were Three…Genesis 3) Works…ELP 4) Abbey Road…Beatles 5) Toto… .the first one 6) World’s Apart…Saga 7) V ….Spock’s Beard 8) The Vigil …Kemper Krabb (worship) 9) More Power to Ya…Petra 10) Boston……the first one
…can I add the next Time Horizon to the list Ha, ha!
PoP: Describe what success means to you, as a person, not a musician?
Ralph: Success to me is loving what you do, knowing you are valued and matter in God’s eyes, knowing how to Love God in all things, and knowing how to love others. It’s not found in money or recognition. Maybe that sounds sappy to some, but I think it is true.
PoP: 2020 devastated the global community in many ways, how has 2020 affected you personally and the band?
Ralph: Thankfully I can design circuit boards for income, I can do that remotely, so that helps. The other guys are retired or work at home as well. Bruce is an automotive mechanic so he can bring in non-music related income. Sometimes it helps to have additional skills.
PoP: What were your plans for 2020 before the pandemic hit and do you plan to resume these plans at some point?
Ralph: We had started recording before the pandemic. There had also been family emergencies that band members became unavailable for some time, so they slowed things as well. We are also trying to find a booking agent, but again it is Tribute and Top 40 bands they want. Hopefully, we can find help in that area once this pandemic subsides.
PoP: Have you ever considered releasing a solo album?
Ralph: Yes, actually. I have a lot of musical ideas that I want to develop. they are just phrases and pieces, but that is how all the material I have contributed starts out as. the songs take on their own life and write themselves. I would love to work with other musicians and put together something very proggy. I tend to be the more Prog head in the band. I would also like to do a worship album.
PoP: What makes a song stand the test of time such as The Beatles’ Let It Be?
Ralph: Funny you mention the Beatles. That was one of my album choices. The Beatles are timeless I think because the songs have melodies that you can remember. They are creative and appear simple, but when you analyze what the cord structure is doing, it’s genius.
PoP: Do you see value in streaming services such as Spotify and YouTube for example?
Ralph: Hmmm, To me, it is bittersweet. What a nice convenience it is. The problem is how it is hurting the artist financially. The royalties paid are very, very small. I mean, you have to have 100’s of thousands and maybe millions of streams per song to see actual viable income from that. The music industry has changed. I am thankful that I have sources of income to provide for my family, on the other hand, Time Horizon is on those platforms and I hope people use that as well as physical merchandise. That is still how artists keep going. Everyone said…well you just have to play concerts and sell out venues…. .um hmmm… ok, now what?
PoP: What’s been the most memorable time in your music career thus far?
Ralph: The very first time I heard a song I recorded playing on the radio in my car. Back in the ’80s, I was in a band with Allen and we were featured on local F Mradio shows and College radio as well. I was driving in my car and listening to the local station when I heard a song I was on….big big smile! I think the second was being able to work with musicians that I looked up to Billy and Michael Sadler and Michael Manring come to mind.
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?
Ralph: I think I paint with blended colors like watercolors can bleed from blue to green to yellow. You can see those colors, but the color between them is really interesting. The music I do is different from song to song, but still maintaining a recognizable sound.
PoP: If you could put one thing back into Pandoras Box what would it be?
Ralph: Nothing. I think we have to work with what we are given. I think it’s all about what we do with it.
PoP: If you could perform anywhere in the world, where would it be and who would be your warm-up act, or co-headliner?
Ralph: I would love to tour Europe. It is where most of our album sales are, so maybe would have more people interested in seeing us play. I think we would be a good warm-up band for Neal Morse band, but he plays three-hour shows, so that isn’t gonna happen. Bands like Life Signs from England has a similar sound also Mystery from Canada. I think if we have enough material to do a 2-hour set so, a co-headliner would also be possible.
How has the music landscape changed since you have become a professional musician?
Ralph: I started writing songs as I learned how to play my instrument. I was in the studio at 19 and playing clubs circuit by 21. It was a vibrant time. Original bands were found everywhere. The radio would play local bands. Now every radio station is owned by a handful of companies. the club scene is a small remnant. People were not afraid to pay to go check out bands. Usually, you heard of the headliner but often I liked the opener or support band more.
PoP: Did MTV or the internet kill the radio star?
Ralph: Yes and No. Yes, it killed the radio for the most part, but the internet opened great opportunities to find new music. I still find new music from artists I never heard of. Time Horizon has fans in Europe, Asia, and South America. That is still mind-boggling to me. They would not have me without it.
PoP: People often say that music is dead because no good music is still being produced, is that true?
Ralph: Music is not dead, the bands are there, but they are crippled in some areas. I think modern pop music is cookie cutter. There are just a few songwriters providing for the stars to perform. That’s why the songs all sound alike. If you turn on the radio, you will find Country, R&B / Rap, and Gospel. The only rock is classic rock. When was the last rock song you heard on FM? I hear new rock and prog on the internet all the time.
PoP: What is the best advice you’ve been given professionally?
Ralph: As far as music composition, What you don’t play is just as or more important than what notes you choose to play. For bands, tour, tour,and tour some more. I am still trying to get the second advice into motion.
PoP: What advice would you give to the next generation of future musicians?
Ralph: Don’t be afraid to experiment. Don’t be afraid to be different. Learn from older music and listen to all genres. There are things to learn from every style And whatever music you do, do it with conviction. Be honest with it.
PoP: Where can people get information about the band and purchase Time Horizon’s music?
Ralph: Well, Time Horizon Website, and a Facebook page that gets updated more than the website ( Not as much as it should) but it is probably the best way to follow current news. The Angelic Noise record label was the band’s store, it has closed for now so our Bandcamp Store, and Melodic Revolution Records. You can find us at all the other Outlets like iTunes, Tidal, Spotify, YouTube, and the like. I think there will be another store set up from the band website in the near future.
PoP: Have you ever thought about being something other than a musician?
Ralph: Originally I thought I would be an illustrator, I studied for a couple of years in college but realized if I want to be a good illustrator, I would need to lay down the music. I couldn’t do it, so I played down my brushes, got a job to buy keyboards, and start a great original band. I did not regret that decision and still feel the same today.
PoP: Do you have a mailing list where fans and voyeursof information can sign up too?
Ralph: I had a mailing list with angelicnoise.com, but that website is debunked at the moment. I am okay for people to reach out to me personally. I will be looking over the mailing list I have to let those that have ordered past albums can get involved with this new project. Give a like to the Time Horizon fan page and follow us there and at MRR.
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?
Well, yeah I just want people to know that I appreciate the support we have received and, I am doing my best to fulfill the expectations of an artist. I hope that I can do more and more. I hope you see improvement as I am always striving to be better at this. I do fall short in the promotion area, I have never been one to point attention to myself, which when you are a music artist you have to do. I feel uncomfortable saying….hey look at me!.. But, pleasehang in there as I will be trying to update more and all I have to say is I am excited as to what Time Horizon is doing.
PoP: Thank you again for taking time out of your busy schedule for this interview.
Ralph: It was truly my pleasure and I enjoyed answering these questions, which I might add were brilliant! You are for sure gifted in this area.
Time HorizonBand Ralph Otteson: Keyboards, background vocals Bruce Gaetke: Drums, lead and background vocals Allen White: Electric and acoustic bass David Miller: Electric and acoustic guitars David Mau: Lead Vocals and support keys
Contributing musician Michael Gregory: Lead electric guitar
Some 16 years ago I first came across Phideaux Xavier and his band and was incredibly impressed not only by the music they were making but also by the fact he was giving CDs away to anyone who asked for them! Fast forward to 2020, and he has now made his complete digital catalogue available free of charge, so it felt the time was right to finally catch up, and ask him the serious questions, such as
Who, what and when is Phideaux?
When I was 13, I devised a “character” that I could be to make music. I used to be named Scott Riggs and it was not a name that I associated with my true self and so I wanted to create a larger than (my) life character who could make the type of fantastical music I loved to listen to. So, through a sequence of events, I came up with the name Phideaux Xavier and started making music under that name. Eventually, I realized that I needed to honour that by legally changing my name. There are many benefits to a name change – for those esoteric types, it is a psychic shift and can be understood through one’s “numerology”. I loved all those occult things and especially wanted to explore the fringes of music and society. There is so much hidden history throughout the ages from seekers of wisdom. I love Philosophy and science as well as the various spiritual disciplines and use my artwork to examine and integrate what I encounter.
When I was young, I was moved by The Beatles, Alice Cooper, Frank Zappa, and Jethro Tull. I was the youngest and my sister was a typical teenager who had the latest groovy records and I learned all about music from her. I admired Ian Anderson because the music of Jethro Tull seemed so singular and visionary and I felt Ian’s personality come through. I wanted to be a musical visionary. I was never attracted to excellent instrumentalists. That’s not to say that I don’t love a great Wakeman keyboard solo, but I was more excited by the concepts and thoughts in the albums I was consuming. Especially I loved the album artwork. Rock and Roll was a whole package. The booklet in Magical Mystery Tour, the Tull newspaper, Zappa liner notes… These were the texts of a new esoteric tradition, one whose authors included Roger Dean, Paul Whitehead, Hipgnosis, Vaughan Oliver. I wanted to contribute to the canon of Rock LPs.
I was never good at engineering and although I made tons of recordings, my work remained forever primitive until I started working with Gabe Moffat and stepping up the production of my albums. I’m fortunate to know many artists and musicians from my youth and they primarily contribute to the work I’ve done thus far. So, at this point, Phideaux is me, but it is also a body of work over several disparate, eclectic albums.
What are your earliest musical memories and who/what inspired you to start playing music and what motivates you now?
As I said, my sister was playing records in the house when I was a kid. My mother was also always listening to Jazz piano music and my brother brought the soul records home. I took guitar lessons at a community centre when I was 10 (with a guitar I pinched from my sister who had lost interest) and that teacher introduced me to Genesis and Renaissance and taught me about open chords and arpeggiated picking. By learning to play Donovan, Renaissance, Moody Blues I recognized how songs were put together and set about devising my own. I then was urged to get an electric guitar by my flute playing friend Amanda Lynne (an excellent artist who is doing some work for future album covers) and we joined with our friends Molly and Linda to make a band called Mirkwood. From there, we added Valerie Gracious and morphed into a new wave band called Sally Dick & Jane. Once college beckoned, that project ended, and I started making tapes where I would play all or most of the instruments. That is when I started making outsider alt pop and more experimental stuff. From there I got multitrack decks as they became affordable and started trying to create professional grade music. I was never very good at playing instruments and my stuff was very messy. I tried to make an album (Friction’) but it didn’t rise to the sound level that I’d hoped, and I got swept up in my day job and stopped making music for a decade.
When did you start performing, what is the story behind the recording of ‘Friction’, and then why did it take so long for ‘Fiendish’ to appear?
In the early 90s as I tried to engineer myself, I made several recordings which formed the basis of my album Friction. At the tail end of that process I decided to simplify things and return to working with acoustic guitar. To that end, I enlisted my friend Ariel Farber and her husband Will to form a band called The SunMachine. It was essentially a “folk/progressive rock” thing. We didn’t have a drummer, but Will doubled on percussion, keyboards, sax and guitar. His multi instrumental capacity allowed for an expanded sound and we added a flute player and bassist, created a repertoire, and played various NYC clubs. Eventually, I felt the pull of electricity and wanted to work in a more rock/glam mode. I’d just produced a song for another artist and met a drummer named Rich Hutchins, or Bloody Rich as he is known. He was the perfect musical brother because he understood glam and progressive rock like Tull and Alice Cooper/Bowie, but was also deeply immersed in punk rock attitude, which I found very attractive. I never liked things that were too musicianly and preferred a primitive approach. However, I loved the classic 1970s production, especially the British stuff. So, Rich and I created and rehearsed an album called ‘Ghost Story’ in 1995/96. After the recording of that album, I was disappointed by the mix and abandoned music as I left for California to work in Television production. It wasn’t until 2001 that I was able to contemplate music again. So, despite having abandoned our previous work, I contacted Rich, who was gracious enough to work with me again, and we embarked on what would become ‘Fiendish’. Once again, I was disappointed with the mix and feeling frustrated asked my friend Gabe Moffat to mix the album. The results of that were so great that I was then able to retrieve ‘Ghost Story’ from the dustbin and upgrade that album. So, in truth ‘Fiendish’ is the third attempt and ‘Ghost Story’, which was my official 2nd release, is truly my first album (proper).
How did the band evolve, as many of the people who worked on ‘Fiendish’ have been involved in your music throughout your career?
The “band” Phideaux evolved because I was asked to perform live in France at Festival Crescendo. And upon receiving that invitation, I contacted the various people who had played on the albums and asked if any were willing to come and play live. I got 9 replies in the affirmative and so a 10-piece ensemble was created. As we rehearsed for the concert, it all seemed to gel together because 7 of us had grown up in the same small New York village so we had a lifelong history. The additional 3 guys were probably both intrigued and put off by this, but it was easy to create the chemistry. After Crescendo, I wanted to make an album with only those 10 people and ‘Number Seven’ was born. In fact, it was during the ‘Number Seven’ sessions that I changed my method of recording. Previously, it would just be myself and Rich (my drummer) recording the basic tracks and everyone else was overdubbed later. With ‘Number Seven’ we started the process of recording with most of the band simultaneously performing. That is one of the reasons I love ‘Snowtorch’ (the follow up to ‘Number Seven’) because it’s got a lot of live playing.
How did Matthew Kennedy become involved, as many people will recognise him from Discipline?
When I made ‘Fiendish’ I asked two people to produce the album – first Mathew Parmenter of Discipline and then Kramer, who has a long and distinguished career as a producer and had played with Daevid Allen and made some very peculiar and wonderful albums. Mathew turned me down, but he was encouraging of my music and I ended up sending him the various albums as I made them. He was playing one of them on a car trip with Mathew Kennedy who then reached out to me on MySpace and we became friends. When I was recording ‘Doomsday Afternoon’, I was looking for some extra input and since I’d played most of the bass on my previous albums, I didn’t have a “go to” guy for bass. So, I thought it would be a fun experiment to ask Mathew to play bass on the ‘Doomsday’ album. We’d never met in person, but I went to meet him at the airport and we came immediately to my house where Gabe and I plugged him into the Pro Tools session and Mathew just played the album from beginning to end. He’d done his homework, knew the whole thing and just played it all straight through. So, obviously that was love at first sight!
How would you describe your music to someone who has not previously come across it?
I would describe my music as eclectic, humour, pretentious, psychedelic, progressive rock with an emphasis on texture and studio effects. Possibly as headphone candy. It is doomy, mournful, sad and tragic, but occasionally uplifting. I shy away from major keys and I love my 60s and 70s, but there are sometimes hints of the 80s. I’m definitely “retrogressive rock”. For the most part, I like melody and music that seems familiar but has a twist. I seek to align with the western canon of rock music, especially from the United Kingdom. I have no interest in creating some new progression of atonal, jazz or to reinvent like Bartok. I am strictly pop rock music with aspirations, you will find me next to I ‘Talk To The Wind’ – not ‘Starless And Bible Black’.
Why the gap after ‘Snowtorch’?
After ‘Number Seven’, there was a plan to make an album of “odds and sods” called ‘7½’. We had two unreleased songs, “Tempest Of Mutiny” and “Out Of The Angry Planet”, as well as “Strange Cloud” which had been recorded for a Musea compilation project about Dante’s Purgatory. There was an outtake from ‘Number Seven’ as well as two re-recordings of earlier songs from my unofficial first album ‘Friction’ which would have formed the structure of ‘7½’. However, as luck would have it, we started another piece while recording “Strange Cloud”. I had a habit of booking a full weekend to record a small bit of music. And so, in order to maximize my time with my band mates, I would often prepare other things for us to record. At the session for “Strange Cloud”, we also recorded a work in progress called “Star Of Light”. It was basically the first 10 minutes of ‘Snowtorch’ as well as the last 5 minutes. It was too long to be on the odds and sods album but seemed like a whole project in and of itself. As we were working on finishing ‘7½’ I got distracted by the idea of expanding “Star Of Light” and we moved our attention to that process. I figured “Star Of Light” which became ‘Snowtorch’ was more “of the moment” and it would be ideal to put out a fully new, holistically conceived work rather than a collection of bits and pieces. ‘Snowtorch’ was completed relatively quickly and at the same time we were offered to perform at RoSfest in USA, which was a prestigious festival. Getting the band together to rehearse takes a lot of planning and effort and often during that time, recordings fall by the wayside.
It was while playing RoSfest that I kept getting asked when we would release the final part of the Doom Trilogy. What people may not realize is that when we play live the songs are quite different from the albums. That’s mostly due to the idea that a lot of studio trickery goes into the albums that won’t translate in a live arena. Live is a different beast, so I am always looking for a way to reinterpret the songs. Plus, by the time you play music live it evolves. Since we are not a live band by nature, we don’t have many gigs (10 people can’t fit on that many stages). So, we really explore the music in the recording studio for the first time, which means that it might be slightly undercooked. Strategies to finish an album are often in the realm of production vs. performance, but you can’t rely on that live, so we change things up. I remember going to see Gentle Giant when I was a kid and marvelling at how different the songs were when they played them live. That made an impression on me.
It was during RoSfest that I realized that we had added bits and pieces to the music of “Great Leap” and “Doomsday” and that I could use those band created moments to form the basis of the third part of the trilogy. So, after RoSfest, I started writing ‘Infernal’. During this time, I’d also worked on a side project called Mogon, which I had recorded (but not finished) two albums. So, those were also side-lined in favour of ‘Infernal’. We recorded the basic tracks for ‘Infernal’ in 2012, but the completion of the album was delayed by various day job requirements and it ultimately took 7 years to finish. In the middle of that time, I put out an unofficial “sampler” of some of the unreleased things (which you can find on my Bandcamp). It was simply called “Phideaux Mogon Bloodfish Promotional Issue” and included some live works as well as songs from ‘7½’ and the two Mogon albums. So, technically there was something about two years after ‘Snowtorch’, but it was not an official album.
However, ‘Infernal’ was a great learning experience for me and I got a little bit possessed in the recording and refining of the album. I think I went to the same place Brian Wilson went with ‘Smile’ – a nearly Twilight Zone where you get so into an album you almost can’t find your way back out. Luckily, I was able to emerge and release the darned thing. I love Infernal and am glad it took the time it took.
Right now, we are mixing a live album containing a selection of various performances through the years, which will include much of ‘Doomsday Afternoon’ as well as the ‘Chupacabras’ recording that was on the Promotional Issue. I’m also recording a “solo” album, which is separate from the 10-piece band. The Mogon albums are still in play and not only will ‘7½’ come into existence, but it now has a sister album provisionally titled ‘Informal’ which is a companion piece to ‘Infernal’. Life marches on and I’m trying to get into my archives and use this “down” time to finish my older projects.
How would define the difference between Mogon and Phideaux and why did you feel the need to separate the two?
While I was recording ‘Snowtorch’, I had a few days in the studio recording a track for a compilation album about Dante’s Purgatory. The session was Rich Hutchins on drums, Mat Kennedy on bass and Mark Sherkus on keyboards. Mark had to catch an earlier plane than the other two and when he left, his keyboard rig still set up and we had a couple hours left in the studio. I told Rich and Mat and Gabe (engineer/producer) to give me 20 minutes and then come back and we would record a “new” song – one I would invent in those 20 minutes. What emerged was a track called “The Chairs” (homage to Eugene Ionesco’s brilliant play). I invited the gents back and briefly gave them the chords and “whispered” the changes as we recorded the first takes. Those whispers became an integral part of the track. The track was a bit more 80s – New Order, Sisterhood, Magazine influenced, and I realized it was not exactly “Phideaux” music. The word that popped into my head was Mogon and thus was born a new side project. A smaller, simpler, more direct, and less laboured style of music. I later undertook a full session for only Mogon music. I think we did 2 or 3 sessions dedicated entirely to Mogon related music. There will be 3 Mogon albums in all. Unfortunately, between work and my general methods of perfectionism, those albums may take a while to find their release. However, you can hear some tracks on a free download called “Bloodfish Promotional Issue” – available on Bandcamp.
You have made all of your digitally available albums free of charge, how and why did that decision come across?
My objective has never been to make money per se. So, when the virus caused mass lockdowns, I thought people might be bored and through their internet trawling come across my work. To that end, I thought it would be ideal during a time when people were stressed for cash to let my work be heard for free. I think people will support the artists they love, and I was just trying to spread the love in return. I hope it introduced my music to a new set of listeners. And I hope they will pass it along.
If someone has a look at all those albums, but hasn’t previously come across their music which ones should they start on and why those?
When I look at my music, there are “charmed” albums and “laboured” albums. The “charmed” albums are those whose songs seemed to suggest themselves to me, whose very existence seemed to spring forth will little interference from me. Those albums (for me) are ‘Doomsday Afternoon’, ‘Ghost Story’, ‘Snowtorch’ and ‘Infernal’. Then, there are the albums whose existence is a bit more fraught, a bit more “laboured”. Those albums would be ‘Fiendish’, ‘Chupacabras’ (although the song itself is “charmed”), ‘313’, ‘The Great Leap’ and ‘Number Seven’. They are attempts, hopes, wishes not quite fulfilled. The audience seems to agree…
I have so many things I want to do, both with my archives as well as finishing my newest “solo” album. This album has been in the works for the last 3 years and has grown into a bit of a sprawl. However, I took a break and was working on my ancient archives recently. It gave me some perspective and I think I now have a path forward on this new album. So, be on the lookout for some new and re-released material in 2021. I had hoped for a 2020 Doomsday reissue, but the virus and money issues put that on the back burner. However, we are excited to use 2021 and 2022 as years for productivity. Stay tuned, wish me well and let’s hope life returns to normal soon. I Have a feeling ’21 is gonna be a good year…
I do want to highlight a few videos we recently put out. One was a photo montage from the recording session for “Love Theme From Number Seven” which is a fun film Mathew Kennedy made from footage and photos. Also, he edited a live tape of “Chupacabras” that we performed at Festival Crescendo in France in 2007. I recommend both those videos if you want to see some visual Phideaux music. Aside from that, be on the lookout because there is a lot more music coming, it just takes time.
Interview by Kev Rowland Author of The Progressive Underground Series
Recap of March 22nd, 2020 Article Coronavirus (Covid-19) Strikes a Chord with Musicians (Part 1) We are living in unprecedented times and crossing over uncharted waters, it’s a new world; one we may have to get accustomed to for the foreseeable future.
(Covid-19) is attacking the social and economic fabric globally and does not discriminate against race, creed, sexual orientation, political affiliation, or anything else for that matter. It has ravaged and even closed down most trades and no industry has been spared, from restaurants to schools, airlines, supply chains, and the entertainment industry.
According to Worldometeras of today June 8th, 2020 215 Countries and Territories around the world have reported a total of over eleven million (11,425,240) people confirmed Infected, 534,491 Deaths with 6,473,428 that have recovered.
According to the World Health Organization Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is an infectious disease caused by a new virus. The disease causes respiratory illness (like the flu) with symptoms such as a cough, fever, and in more severe cases, difficulty breathing. You can protect yourself by washing your hands frequently, avoiding touching your face, and avoiding close contact (1 meter or 3 feet) with people who are unwell.
Coronavirus disease spreads primarily through contact with an infected person when they cough or sneeze. It also spreads when a person touches a surface or object that has the virus on it, then touches their eyes, nose, or mouth.
The Coronavirus epidemic has devastated almost every industry in the world, and one of the hardest hit is the entertainment industry including performers, producers, stagehands promoters, musicians and the list goes on, some of these people do not have a second job, they rely solely on recording, tours, music and merch sales to pay the bills.
Millions of people in the entertainment industry have/had multiple jobs just to make a living. A number of these folks got hit with job displacement twice as hard since many worked in the food industry for the flexible hours. Just trying to make ends meet. As we all know most restaurants have closed, reopened, and have closed their doors again with the 2nd wave, a small percentage remain open with a skeleton crew offering curbside service or delivery service.
It is bad enough so many need more than one job to live. For musicians, it is almost a guarantee that a second job will be needed outside of music to sustain a living. Due to layoffs and closers of businesses these musicians are dealing with the same issues as the few full-time musicians, loss of most if not all income. Most musicians lack one of the most basic and fundamental needs: insurance! Many musicians have turned to online gigs and teaching to make a few dollars. Here’s what a few industry professionals and a few more musicians have to say in part two of our interview Coronavirus (COVID-19) Continues to Strike a Chord.
Rick Herbert ( Ace High Printing, Musician ) USA
Interview conducted July 2020
Q) Hello Rick, how are you doing? A) Hey Nick! Hanging in there, these last few months have been a wild ride.
Q) You own and operate Ace High Printing one of the best Florida based printing companies, how long has the company been around, and what kind of printing do you specialize in? A) Yeah man, I’ve been printing a long time for a lot of incredible people. I first opened the doors to Ace High in July of 2004, so this marks our 16th year in business. We specialize in Wide Format Printing (Vinyl Stickers, Banners, Amp Scrims, Custom Kick Drum Covers, Signs, Vehicle Wraps, and Buttons), Digital Printing (Business Cards, Flyers, Brochures, Posters, Artist Prints) and Screen Printing (T-Shirts and Apparel).
Q) Has your company always focused on the entertainment industry A) From day one, Ace High has always been a part of the music industry. As a matter of fact, I only started this company because I couldn’t find a good local merch company for the band I was in at the time. I had been working at a local sign shop and started making my own merch. I decided if I was having such a hard time finding a reliable company, other musicians and artists must be as well. That’s when Ace High was born. Over the last 16 years, we’ve worked with tons of venues, bands just getting their start, huge musicians/labels, and everything in between. We’ve sponsored showcases and events, and we’ve even shipped merch to over 20 different countries.
Q) What are some of the most popular products that you make for the musicians and the industry? A) It’s a total toss-up between Stickers and the Custom Kick Drum Covers for sure. Everyone loves stickers – and are full color, glossy and weatherproof, but I’d have to say we have almost as many kick cover orders coming in these days.
Q) Over the years you have also offered services for commercial business, how is that different if at all to the products that you manufacture for the entertainment industry? A) The commercial side isn’t much different. I’ve found that just like musicians, businesses also need stickers, labels, banners, things like that. The biggest difference would be the Signage and Vehicle Wraps. We do a ton of sign work for local and sometimes not so local companies for their storefronts. We’ve been known to wrap all kinds of vehicles as well. One of my favorite “corporate” projects was for the MLB Network. Anytime you catch a baseball game on TV and see the huge MLB Network logos on the walls in the outfield, you’re looking at something we printed. They contracted us to do all the MLB Logos years ago, it was a blast.
Q) How has the COVID-19 Epidemic affected your business? A) COVID-19 has been a real pain in the ass. haha, I think everyone is feeling that these days. Luckily, print shops were deemed “essential” and I was allowed to keep the doors open through all of this, but getting material in has been tough – a lot of the manufacturing plants had to close. Shipping times have slowed a bit as well – just because the carriers are taking more care with sanitizing. I’ve taken a pretty big hit business-wise for sure… Without the musicians able to work and venues unable to open, no one is really buying merch at the moment, which is completely understandable.
Q) The COVID-19 Epidemics seems to have been very tough on everyone including the music industry, what type of challenges or opportunities has this presented to you? A) It has been tough – we ended up switching gears a bit in the business plan. We’ve been working with a lot more restaurants and things like that. You know, they all need those “We’re Open for Takeout” banners, they need stickers/labels for the to-go containers, all the businesses needed the “Wear a Mask” signs… so we’ve been printing a lot that type of stuff. We’ve also just been giving out all kinds of discounts and package deals to anyone that needs them. Times are tough for everyone, and I’m just here to help as much as possible.
Q) You, yourself are a musician has this epidemic given you a moment of pause and encouraged you to write and record some new music? A) Actually yeah. I hate to say that I’ve had a little extra time on my hands, but it’s true. And since the whole social distancing and closing of bars/venues, I’ve been able to spend a little more time just sitting down playing and writing. That’s been an upside to this whole situation – I feel like I’m finally laying down those songs I’ve had in my head for so long.
Q) How has this affected you on a personal level? A) Personally, it hasn’t been bad at all. Over the last few years, as the business has grown, I’ve pretty much been working non-stop. Haven’t had a ton of time to go out, play shows, or do much of anything. And since I was fortunate enough to be able to remain open through this, I’ve just kept on working like usual. If anything it’s given me a chance to use my companies abilities to help people in a rough time – that really makes me feel good.
Q) Do you see us getting back to normal anytime soon? A) I think the bigger question is, what is “normal” going to look like when this is all over? I’m not sure if we’ll ever get back to exactly the way things were, and that might be ok. But I have a feeling all this will settle down a bit in the next few months. Or directly after the election. But that’s for a whole different discussion about conspiracy theories. haha.
Q) What can people do to help support local businesses like yours? A) Honestly, right now keeping money local is key. I’d say try to shop as locally as possible instead of heading to the big box/chain stores. There are going to be a number of businesses that don’t make it through this, and that really sucks. The more you can utilize the services you have in your own city, the better chance we all have of making it.
Q) Please give us a WORD that you rely on and gives you hope? A) Perseverance. I think we all personally, and as a country, have always done a decent job of adapting and overcoming trying times. This is just one more fight, one more hurdle, one more historical obstacle that we WILL get through and persevere.
Q:Hello, Ace how are you doing? A: Feeling grateful and blessed, Nick, but a bit confused, too.
You work for a company called SST Studios and Rentals. Can you tell us how long you have been with SST and what do you do? A: SST is a music industry complex in Weehawken, NJ, right across the river from Midtown Manhattan. We are one of the leading backline companies in the U.S. and our rehearsal soundstage is one the best in the city. We also have a state-of-the-art 48-channel recording studio with a rare analog Focusrite console.
The owner, John Hanti, grew up near my hometown, Warren, Ohio. We played in different teen bands in the 60s on the same circuit. He tells me we once met at a teen club when we shared the bill, but I don’t remember it. I had been out of the business for 26 years when he heard some of my new songs on a Yahoo discussion group. He looked me up and called me on August 30, 2007 to offer me a long-term production/writing development deal. I took the deal.
In late September 2012, Hanti was critically injured in an auto accident. A month later, Superstorm Sandy destroyed the studio, along with the successful production company we had built together. I lost everything I owned to that storm. We both endured five challenging years of recovery, but recover we did. By March this year, SST had become the hottest studio and rehearsal spot in the New York area
I had worked in advertising as a creative director during those long years away from the music business, so I am today SST’s Marketing Director.
How long has the company been around and what’s special about it? A: Hanti founded SST (which stands for “studios, systems, and transport”) in 1982 in response to the Second British Invasion. He had established a formidable reputation in Manhattan and built a substantial inventory of stage gear and vans. British bands like the Smiths, Police, and Motorhead needed both to tour the States, and Hanti provided them. That’s how it started.
Q:Who are some of SST clients? A: Beyonce’ and Jay-Z, Miley Cyrus, J-Lo, Bruno Mars, Camila Cabelo, Blue Oyster Cult, and the Rolling Stones to name just a few. For Backline, our clients include LiveNation and iHeart. Multiple Grammy winner, H.E.R., was in the studio in March when we were forced to shut down.
Q:What are some of the services that you offer to your clients? A: The backline is our bread and butter, but the artists come for our soundstage and our studio, IIWII Recording. We also have a storage building where many stars store their own gear when they are not on the road and the adjoining Willow Building houses project studios for several top Hip Hop artists and producers.
How has the COVID-19 Epidemic affected SST? A: Drastically. Our entire business is based on tour support services. There are no tours right now and there will be no tours at all in 2020. Hanti had the foresight to have a Cyclorama constructed on one wall of the soundstage, so we were able to open again in mid-June for music video shoots and live-streaming, in-studio concerts. We are re-purposing the studio now as a live streaming/video concert venue.
Q:The COVID-19 Epidemics seems to have been very tough on everyone including the music industry, what type of challenges or opportunities has this presented to you? A: The biggest challenge for John Hanti has been to keep his people employed. We’re down to three right now. If another shutdown doesn’t stop our progress, I believe we can attract enough in-house business to bring everyone back on board and survive 2020. That is a big IF, though, the way things are going.
Q: You, yourself are a musician has this epidemic given you a moment of pause and encouraged you to write and record some new music A: This is why I feel so blessed and grateful. The shutdown forced Hanti to lay everybody off for a while. Thankfully, In January, a recording artist named John Blangero, aka, Sun King Rising, with whom I had become friends, asked me to produce his album for PeacockSunrise Records. He had the budget to do it right and the project has sustained me. Now that the album is in the can (that’s an old school term if you don’t know), I have been additionally blessed to work on the cover design and promotion. Also, Hanti and I had been writing a book together about the business. The album project has injected new energy into my spirit and renewed momentum to finish the book proposal and shop for an agent.
Q:How has this affected you on a personal level? A: I think I am a bit shell-shocked, as most of us are. I have chosen to focus on the positives and ignore the negatives, only because I was already in such a good space when this came down. Had I not had the album and the continuing faith of both John Blangero and John Hanti, I may not have felt quite so optimistic. Looking to the future…well…I am hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.
Q:Do you see us getting back to normal anytime soon? A: Our industry? No, I do not. I’m afraid we won’t be back to anything close to normal until next summer.
Q:What can people do to help support local businesses like SST? A: SST doesn’t do business with the public, so that is not really an appliable question. As an artist myself, though, I can only hope that fans will channel their dollars from the concerts they would have spent them on to supporting artists like Sun King Rising, who are still making records. The stars will survive this crisis. The independent bands and performers for whom live music and indie records are a livelihood may not…not without fan support.
Q:Please give us a WORD that you rely on and gives you hope? A:“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. “Jeremiah 29:11 ‘Nuff said,
Q: Hello Tom, how are you doing? A: Thanks for asking…it’s certainly a question we are all asking our friends and loved ones much more often these days. I’m doing well, all things considered, and I hope you and everyone reading this are also doing well!
Q: You are the founder and music director of ProgStock Music Festival one of the best new music festivals on the east coast of the US, When and where did you launch the first one? A: I’m deeply grateful for that very favorable description…I hope we can continue to live up to it! We launched ProgStock in October 2017 at the beautiful and historic Union County Performing Arts Center’s Mainstage Theater in the very arts-friendly city of Rahway, New Jersey. As you know, we are an annual volunteer-run event whose mission is to shine light on one of the most exciting and creative genres of rock music, Progressive Rock. To date, we’ve produced three editions of ProgStock, in October of 2017, 2018, and 2019.
Q: How has the COVID-19 Epidemic affected ProgStock and other live performances around the world? A: That’s a really tough question to ponder, emotionally…because the impact has been nothing short of devastating. Live music performances heavily depend upon the “in-person experience” for both musicians and fans, and the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly made that nearly impossible for the time being. Performances of all kinds have understandably been indefinitely postponed or canceled, for everyone’s safety.
Q: This has been very tough on everyone including the music industry, what type of challenges or opportunities has this presented to you? A: So many challenges…it’s hard to describe all of them. The main one is that we are “frozen” and unable to predict when conditions will allow for a safe and secure environment to have a festival or any kind of live performance. The musicians and others involved with musical performance production have seen their entire lives ripped apart by this pandemic…the damage is deep and pervasive. In spite of all this upheaval, we at ProgStock, along with many others in the music industry, are doing our part to support musicians and fans by organizing live performances over streaming services. As we learn more about what can be done safely (especially for the musicians involved), we will try our best to help keep Progressive Rock alive during this incredibly difficult time. Stay tuned as we will be announcing some exciting things very soon!
Q: How has this affected you on a personal level? A: Frankly, I’m depressed…but I remain hopeful. I also know that I have been very fortunate, in many ways, and that many others have been overwhelmed by the pandemic and its effects on themselves, their loved ones, and society in general. There have been some hardships for me, and some friends and family members have run into health problems, sure. But, putting that aside, I’ve come to realize how important it is to remember that we are a society, a collection of people who all want to experience our lives as safely, securely, and happily as we can. And that means giving a bit more consideration to others when making my own choices…within reason, of course, but always with good and proper intentions, and without judging others for having real concerns about their own safety and security. If that leads to minor inconveniences for me at times, so be it. I’d certainly want the same in return if I needed it!
Q: Do you see us getting back to normal anytime soon? A: Not soon enough, certainly. Living with this pandemic has been hard for everyone, and nearly impossible for many. Everyone has had to “hit pause” on their lives, and for some folks, that’s been catastrophic. Returning to “normal” might not be possible at all, because we’ll need to adjust what we think “normal” is. However, I am hopeful that we will be able to return to a more “familiar” way of life sometime within the next 9-12 months. At first, we’ll need some medical breakthroughs to give us the edge we need to stay ahead of the virus (both it’s spread and its disease process). Then it will require some very necessary “healing time” so that our psyches can recover from the damage they’ve taken…as we’ve experienced (to varying degrees) after previous tragedies that we’ve endured. Getting back to enjoying a musical event with friends old and new, feeling that incredible exhilaration and excitement without fear…we will absolutely achieve that again, I have no doubt. Eventually.
Q: Please give us a word that you rely on and gives you hope. A: Science. Plain, and simple. We are an extraordinarily intelligent species, and I’m convinced that we will innovate our way out of this worldwide crisis and be better prepared for future situations like this.
Q: What can people do to help support music festivals for future events? A: Here are my “top 5” things that people can do to support music festivals in the future: 1) embrace their efforts to present streaming options when you cannot attend in-person, and buy their tickets and merchandise as soon as you can when they are made available; 2) donate your time and effort in order to help them cut costs if you are willing and able to do so; 3) spread the word about them to other potential fans to help increase their audiences; 4) if you are fortunate enough to be able, please consider making financial donations to the ones that need them; and 5) try to keep the safety, security, and dignity of your fellow festival attendees in mind by treating everyone kindly, respectfully, and tolerantly. Above all else, please try to be as patient as you can with musicians, event organizers, and fellow fans as all of us try to navigate the new “landscape” of the music industry…because there’s never been a better reason to remember that we are all in this together!
Chris Topham ( Plane Groovy Records ) United Kingdom
Q: Hello Chris, how are you doing? Very well thanks; we live fairly remotely so no huge change here apart from not seeing our pals.
Q: How long have you been in the music business? A: Since November 2011
Q: What exactly do you do? A: I run Plane Groovy Records, a vinyl-only record label.
Q: Who are some of your clients? A: Mainly current Prog bands such as Big Big Train, I am the Manic Whale, Unitopia, A Formal Horse, Thieves’ Kitchen, This Winter Machine, Peter Jones, Francis Dunnery, and many more.
Q: How has the Coronavirus affected you and your artists? A: The artists have been hugely hampered by the lockdown; no touring, no rehearsals, and in many cases no day job to fall back on either because of furlough.
Q: This has been very tough on everyone including the music industry, what are you doing to overcome these challenging times? A: I’m just drifting on through, to be honest; we’re still putting albums out.
Q: What type of challenges or opportunities has this presented to you? A: One thing which we’ve put on hold is the Plane Groovy Investors project, which among other benefits offers colored vinyl versions of some releases to those who have signed up. I thought it unfair to put any kind of pressure onto our Investors, not wanting them to feel that they had to put money into this when times could be quite tough. We’ll be restarting that again very soon though, with an album from Comedy of Errors, “Disobey”.
Q: How has this affected you on a personal level? Honestly, it hasn’t been too bad – apart from not seeing my Mum and my son as much as I’d like to.
Q: Do you see us getting back to normal anytime soon? A: Normal? No. Workable yes, but I think life is going to be very strange for a good while yet.
Please give us a word that you rely on and gives you hope? Positivity.
Anne Leighton ( Leighton Media * Music Services * Motivation ) USA
Q: Hello Anne, how long have you been in the music business? A: Around 40-45 years.
Q: What exactly do you do? A: I write and do music services. My core work is publicity, social media, organization, management, project development, goal setting, copywriting, rapping, songwriting, poetry. I am available to tutor English (writing), Civics, and History on Skype. I’m, also, a crackerjack proofreader and editor.
Q: Who are some of your clients? A: Joe Deninzon & Stratospheerius, Phoebe Legere, Sharon Katz & the Peace Train, John Hall & Jonell Mosser, Ian Anderson, Leslie Mandoki, Katy Moffatt, the Yardbirds, and me.
Q: How has the Coronavirus affected you and your artists? A: Most of what I do is tour press, and nobody is touring. We all need to reinvent how we earn money, plus keep working on our art, and love the people and animals we live with. We’re doing more Internet work together with people, and seeing what else businesses need when it comes to music services.
Q: This has been very tough on everyone including the music industry, what are you doing to overcome these challenging times? A: 1) I’m paying attention to what is included in the reopening phases for the next few years. It’s important to analyze that progress to see if the loosening of restrictions is healthy. That is important so I know who to reach out to for work for my artists and me!
2) Pitching my artists, and their songs for music services, concerts, workshops in non-music venues. I have rich connections in North America, South Africa, and the UK that are responsible and available for work. They also have great songs. Also, looking for funding for songs on relevant topics.
3) Accepting the fact that we might not have big live concerts for a few years, so I’m letting the world know I’m available to publicize empowerment people, social media influences, as well as releases of music in prog rock, Americana, jazz, folk, singer-songwriter, classic rock, diehard musician, blues, fusion, jam bands.
4) I’m giving myself a schedule where I have to be ready by 11 am, and in bed by 2:30 AM. Sleep is essential. I take naps. Writing my gratitude’s, creating peace. Speaking up to people that could learn to be less disrespectful. Learning more diplomacy! Meditation a few times a day, exercising, eating healthy, making phone calls, going out to the park, wearing protective gear—you know the mask and the gloves!
Q: What type of challenges or opportunities has this presented to you? The worst is finding out friends died. Three of them were magical spirits that understood me and vice versa. All were in the music world.
I miss hanging out with people and physical touch. In the past, I hugged people every day!
Finances are the least of my concerns because all of us are capable of living on less money than we do. Budgeting through rough times is something every college kid learns. I did it once, I can do it again.
Q: We are seeing a second wave of people getting ill and dying, do you think it’s because we reopened too soon or that there are a fraction of people that don’t care or may even believe COVID-19 is not real? A: Combination. I think some people either have no concept of self-discipline or just don’t want to live.
Q: How has this affected you on a personal level? A: I’m working on my serenity. Loving myself, and focusing on my writing aspirations. I’m writing a spoken word album about evolving through rough times. Looking for funding for the project and aiming to produce a rap song this summer. Then another song in the fall. If I get more funding, I’ll produce the whole thing by the end of the year. I’d love to place two-column ideas in paying outlets—one on bullying, and the other would be poetry and prose of some of the more obscure classic rock and contemporary acts that have that sound.
Q: Do you see us getting back to normal anytime soon? A: New normal. You’re normal.
Q: Please give us a word that you rely on and gives you hope A: The word? I’m gonna give you a phrase: Honor yourself with kindness.
Q:Hello Aaron, how are you adapting to the Covid-19 Pandemic? A: I arrived in Europe to play a two-month solo tour on the same day that the U.S. government restricted flights & entry from Europe & asked Americans to come home. I hung around there for two weeks, hoping that I might still end up playing some of my gigs once the virus situation cleared. In the meantime, as I waited, I started playing online live-streaming gigs. Eventually the timelines for life to “return to normal” kept being extended. So I headed back to the States, lest I be locked out indefinitely.
Q:What type of challenges or opportunities has this presented to you? A: It was a forced opportunity to re-assess my career, start playing online gigs and look for new chances to get the music heard – and to make money with the music. That’s scary, and in “normal” circumstances, we tend to avoid scary. The silver lining here is that I had to take a fresh look at my music career, see what was and wasn’t working, and make educated guesses on what would work in a post-COVID-19 world.
Q:Are you working on a new release? A: I am! I’m working on a long-distance collaborative song with artist friends in three other countries, all recording separately in our various quarantine situations.>Are you planning on performing via a live streaming platform?I started playing 3x a week live stream concerts as soon as my European tour gigs were put on hold. That will continue indefinitely – I’m guessing I’ll have to suspend them once my touring resumes. Touring’s too much work to be doing much else.
Q:Are you offering your fans any incentives to help support your music? A: I’ve had a Patreon account for five years now, the incentives are in there: I release exclusive songs & remixes, I write custom songs for people, etc. It’s so much more helpful to have support via a patronage model than it is to get a one-time tip in the PayPal “hat” during a live-streaming gig. In the patronage model, it’s ongoing: a commitment to supporting your songs for the long-haul.
Q:How has this affected you on a personal level? A: The uncertainty has created a slow creeping anxiety for me I suspect that most everyone on the planet is feeling that right now. I’ve been combating the anxiety with exercise, meditation, yoga, tai chi.
Q:Will you continue creating and performing now and after the dust settles? A: I will! What will that look like? Well, what will the world look like? Nobody knows. But I’m a musician, that’s what I do all day, that’s where I receive my income. So I’ll adjust accordingly to whatever new reality we are handed…or that we create!
Q:How are you adapting to the Covid-19 Pandemic? A: Actually in my/our family’s case, because of our son’s health issues, there isn’t much of a change in terms of our daily attention to hygiene. The only thing that’s perhaps different is the fact that we have ramped up our attention to detail in light of the current situation.
Q:What type of challenges or opportunities has this presented to you? A: As I mentioned, there really are no new challenges per se. But it has given me the opportunity to focus on time with the family, which comes at a premium when you’re “work” keeps you away from home for long periods of time.
Q:Are you working on a new release? Personally? A: All the time. But yes, there is a new release from the band being worked on as we speak.
Q:Are you planning on performing via a live streaming platform? A: I’m considering putting a little something together with Seren, but I’ll make sure I give everyone a fair warning.
Q:Are you offering your fans any incentives to help support your music? A: I don’t think we, as artists, need any more support that we’re already getting. Plus, the idea that we’re being hit harder at a time like this isn’t necessarily true, especially recording artists who have the luxury of receiving compensation in the form of residuals and royalties. As big or small as some of those payments may be, it’s 100% more than a large portion of the workforce is getting.
Q:How has this affected you on a personal level? A: I find that the present situation merely serves to underline my concern for humanity. It’s times like these that always tend to bring out the best as well as, unfortunately, the worst in people. But ultimately I have faith that we will collectively do the right thing.
Q:Will you continue creating and performing now and after the dust settles? A: Dust or no dust, I personally will never stop creating and performing. Besides, there’s a wealth of content out there right now for someone like myself who draws on human behavior as a source of inspiration.
Q:: Hello Tori how are you adapting to the Covid-19 Pandemic? A: Here in Barcelona, we’ve been under quarantine for a bit over a week already. It’s been pretty non-stop, canceling, and reorganizing literally everything. I got back from several shows in Madrid just before we all were placed on lockdown, so I had time to go to the store and prepare. Since then, I’ve been working from home — which isn’t unusual, I always do — but the kind of work is different. Instead of booking live concerts, the focus has been on other ways of reaching our community of fans. On a personal level, I’ve also been checking in with friends and family a lot, I want to make sure everyone is ok mentally as well as physically, as this is a scary time for everyone. The virus is bad enough, but the chaos that’s been a result of the general panic seems like it will have heavy economic repercussions, especially for people who freelance or who own small businesses.
Q:Are you planning on performing via a live streaming platform? A: I’ve done two concerts from my balcony here in Barcelona, to try to uplift my neighbors. Last weekend was impromptu and very last minute, as it was the day after the quarantine was announced and we’d had a show canceled for that very night. I just plugged in my amp and mic and started playing, and people starting poking their heads out of their windows and applauding. Both times the reaction was really heartwarming, it was so beautiful to see people out on their balconies or in their windows or on their rooftops, enjoying life for a moment in the midst of all this madness. The original idea was just to give something back to my community, so I honestly didn’t think of doing a live stream. But thanks to my mom’s suggestion I decided to also stream the performance on Instagram and Facebook, which turned out to be a great thing, as people all over the world tuned in and I think the gesture made people happy. So I’ll keep playing every Saturday until the quarantine is lifted. It’s important that people have a little hope in times of darkness, and music brings a community together in a way that is special.
Q:What type of challenges or opportunities has this presented to you? A: There are a number of challenges, of course. I make my living playing shows, so with 99% of all concerts canceled through June — possibly beyond — I am extremely concerned in terms of my financial future. I’ve had concerts canceled in multiple countries, and two major projects put on hold. This doesn’t just affect me, there’s my band, my sound tech, my publicist — none of these people will be working during this time, and I care about all of them personally, not just professionally. Most of them have little kids and they don’t know how they’ll pay their bills. However, there’s nothing I or anyone can do except to keep moving forward day by day, and hope that things will get better and that our community will continue to support music and culture as much as they can. There are also opportunities, in that the balcony concert I mentioned has received a lot of unexpected attention in the national press here in Spain as well as online, and it’s connected me to many new people.
I am the secretary of the Musicians Union of Catalunya (Sindicat de Musics Activists de Catalunya), we working to raise awareness of how this situation is affecting working artists via social media campaigns and by proposing meetings with government officials as well as other unions (our sister union in Madrid and the soundtechs union, for example). One huge problem facing musicians where I live is that there are a number of politically influential organizations, associations, and unions that have a vertical structure, not a horizontal one. What that means is that the persons or entities responsible for hiring and firing employees and/or freelance workers are a part of the same union or organization that is meant to defend everyone’s interest. (It’s like being in a workers’ union with your boss — there’s no way to defend your interests.) So our union runs into conflicts with groups like this all the time, which claim to represent the “music industry.” This is not the same thing as representing musicians’ professional interests. Musicians are already in a bad spot in Spain because of of spotty enforcement of labor laws, blatantly illegal and abusive contracts, pay-to-play situations, problems being paid performance royalties…. the list goes on and on. The current situation has made it much worse,
Q:Are you working on a new release? A: We released our last album not quite a year ago, the double live album Wait No More, so we’re still in the promotion phase for that record. But I’m always working on ideas in my head for the future, I have scraps of new songs here and there that will definitely turn into something!
Q:Are you offering your fans any incentives to help support your music? A: Speaking of new albums, I’m putting together a compilation album called Amor en Tiempos de Cuarentena (Love in a Time of Quarantine), featuring various artists from my community that has been affected by the pandemic. The album will be paid for by crowdfunding and will support not only me but also 9 other artists. The crowdfunding link will go live this coming week. I hope that my audience and theirs will respond, and we will all get through this together. The streaming concerts are given as a gift to our communities, but we also have to remember that artists make their living from their music. I’m trying to remind people of this in a positive, proactive way, so they’ll be excited to support the music they love — hence the compilation album. I am also encouraging my people to buy albums in general (mine, sure, but if not mine, someone’s — specifically independent artists) instead of just listening to Spotify. We really need the support of our communities now more than ever. I believe that my fans will be there, during and after this crazy time.
And if you missed the final #BalconyConcert, a playlist of videos from all 9 concerts — all 10, if you count the bonus second set from the final show this past weekend — are on YouTube, with more videos to come. Huge thanks toLas Telenotícias de TV3, Radio4, El Periódico, Radio Primavera Sound, El Punt Avui, ScannerFm, Ruta66, Radio Gràcia, Rock On Magazine, and the other members of the press as well as friends and fans who all helped to spread the word about both the compilation album and the balcony concerts.
The balcony concerts may have ended when the quarantine was lifted, but that doesn’t mean the concerts are over! On Saturday, May 30th Tori will present a very special online concert the trio, accompanied by El Rubio on guitar and Javi García on cajón. More information is here.
Q:How has this affected you on a personal level? A: My work and my personal life are pretty much intertwined, as it is for many musicians out there I’m sure. It’s a stressful moment. But one positive thing that always comes out of a crisis is that we end up appreciating the people who love even more, and discovering that yes, we can face down a situation like this one and carry on. I feel both of those things, in spite of the challenges in my day to day and my concerns about the future.
Q:Will you continue creating and performing now and after the dust settles? A: During and after the storm — of course! If musicians didn’t make music just because they weren’t making any money I think new music would have stopped happening long ago, working in this industry has always been a tough gig. The only issue is that I’m actually so busy with canceling, rescheduling, the compilation disc, and so on, that I’ve been working more this past week than I have since the album release — I haven’t had time to stop and write a song yet! But as they’ve just extended the quarantine here for 15 more days, I have a feeling I’ll find the time. I hope so. At the end of the day, all this — the production of the albums, the promotion, the social media, the interviews — all started because I used to feel happiest sitting at home and writing songs in my bedroom. It’s important not to forget why I (or anyone) got into this crazy biz in the first place.
Since this interview was conducted in March Tori has finished “Love in a Time of Quarantine” On 21 May 2020. A: The crowdfunding campaign for Love in a Time of Quarantine has ended at 146% of its initial goal. Thank you from the bottom of our quarantined hearts to everyone who supported the project. This album will not be available in stores, or online. It won’t be available on Spotify, YouTube, or other streaming platforms. Its truly limited edition. The digital download version was sent out last night, and the physical albums will be shipped by the end of the month. The show must go on — and with your help, it did! Click here to learn more about the compilation album and check out the incredible artists who are a part of it.
This Pandemic is far from over, the numbers of cases keep rising. The only thing for certain is that we need to continue to be vigilant, wear a mask in public, stay out of cramped spaces with lots of people, and bad ventaliation, don’t gather in large groups. These are the things we know that we can do, what we don’t know is how long this will last and when and if there will be a vaccine or a cure.
On a final note, please support your musicians by purchasing music directly or Bandcamp if possible and please support your community by shopping local.
At some point last year, I became aware of the band Potter’s Daughter, and their lead singer Dyanne Potter Voegtlin. I can’t remember who reached out to who, but we have been talking to each other through Facebook, and I was lucky enough to hear the wonderful debut album. At some point we discussed undertaking an interview which was promptly forgotten by both of us until a mutual friend tagged me in a video of Dyanne playing a grand piano, which made me realise that we hadn’t spoken about the idea since. Here is the result of the ensuing conversation, with someone who follows some very different musical paths, but it all comes together in this amazing band. If you have yet to hear these guys you are missing out, and I know by the end of this piece you are going to be searching for them, and your ears will thank you forever.
Who, what, when is Dyanne Potter Voegtlin?
I have spent my life searching for the answer to this question and I am still working on it! But what am I like? I am both outgoing and reflective; I love performing on stage and interacting with the audience, but also require solitude. I am a wanderer; from an early age I knew I wished to live in many different places and experience the richness and variety our world has to offer. Being a musician has made it possible for me to live in several countries, immerse myself in their cultures, and befriend many different people. I am fascinated by people and their stories. Practically speaking, I’m a pianist, composer, singer, entertainer, lyricist, traveler; I love being outside in nature, I love animals, I love feasting and celebrating, I love hiking, mountain streams, sailing, I love hearing people laugh and sing, I love doing yoga at sunrise, I love sitting around a campfire, I love drinking my morning coffee. I love my family and friends.
The most important thing for me, for my Life, is to seek depth in my relationships, in my connection to others, to Music, to Life. I am so grateful to be a musician because music encourages connection in so many ways!
Who first influenced you to start performing music?
I was born into a musical family. My mother directed our church’s choir (for over 50 years!), my father played in the army band, my brothers and sister each played an instrument. I thought it was something everyone did. I was able to play piano by ear very young, so when my sister’s piano teacher heard me plunk out a tune on the piano, she recommended I begin taking lessons to avoid learning incorrectly. I was three years old. I began performing at age five. I played in a recital at Carnegie Hall that same year. I remember the only reason I really liked playing in all those recitals as a young child was because after the performance, cake was often served! My parents took us to see many concerts and performances, I loved them! I remember specifically, seeing “Up With People” and begging my mother to let me audition. She thought I was too young, alas. I remember seeing ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ and being moved beyond words. And then, I discovered Yes, Genesis, and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer!!!!!
What inspired a classically trained pianist to start working with rock bands, and how did that come about?
Even though I studied classical piano my entire childhood, I still loved popular music. My older sister had a few albums and I listened to them; Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, also Rufus and Chaka Khan. My brother and I would play all those songs together, he on electric guitar, me on piano or organ, and singing at the top of my lungs! Good thing we lived out in the country!!!
I had the opportunity at age 16 to audition for a successful cover band in the area, East Coast Revue. They were really good and played every Friday and Saturday night. I had to play “Hold the Line” by Toto to prove my keyboard skills and I had to sing “I Will Survive” to show my vocal skills. I luckily got the job and started working with them every weekend. What a wonderful and fun time!! I thought I was so cool, working in bars when I was just 16. I felt like such a rebel!
Then I moved to NYC to attend the Manhattan School of Music. I continued my dual musical life, studying and practicing the classical piano repertoire, listening to Yes, King Crimson, Laurie Anderson, Kate Bush, and performing with a band of fellow MSM students at different colleges and venues in the city.
After I graduated from MSM, I was hired as keyboard player for Shirley Alston Reeves, the former lead singer of the famous girl group, The Shirelles. I toured with her for two years, and it is from her I learned how to engage the audience. The Shirelles were officially inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996! Not long after leaving Shirley, I toured playing keyboards with Noel Redding, the bass player with Jimi Hendrix. During that tour, we did a show with Ginger Baker. What a thrill!! We also opened for Blue Öyster Cult in NYC with Tico Torres playing drums with us. Very cool!!! I then started working with an agent who booked me to play and sing in fine hotels and piano bars in Europe. I traveled 6-8 months out of every year, playing in Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Greece, Japan. Then I would return to NYC and perform with Potter’s Daughter. Twice while playing in Lugano, Robert Palmer came to hear me and sang some songs with me. Really fun!!!!
Then I met my husband in Switzerland, moved there, and lived in Switzerland for 14 years. It was during that time I got in touch with Jon Anderson. He was accepting submittals for a new project and I sent him an orchestration I had done. He loved it, and I did several arrangements for him. After we moved back to the USA, I reconnected with my friend Amit Chatterjee, and restarted Potter’s Daughter!
Since releasing our debut album, The Blind Side, in 2018, we had the honor of recording a single (Blood and Water) with the fabulous Annie Haslam, and have also recorded a still-unreleased single featuring Jon Anderson which we hope to include on our upcoming second album.
You trained as a classical pianist, toured with Shirley Alston Reeves and Noel Redding, then went back to playing piano and hotels. Why the switch?
That was a function of survival. I was a young musician in NYC struggling to make enough money to pay rent. I worked while attending MSM at whatever sort of job I could get; waitress, concert hall usher (this one was great because I heard amazing concerts for free!), I worked in a health food store, sold office supplies over the phone (hated it!), worked as a live-in nanny. I lived in an illegal basement apartment for a time. I would move from one short-term sublet to the next since the rent was cheaper. I moved so many times, my brother Dave claims he only knows his way around NYC with my futon on his head!! I used to have to take my DX7 and Memory Moog on the subway to get to gigs because I could not afford a cab. I lived once for two weeks on frozen spinach and rice I was so short on money.
So, when I had the opportunity to travel to Europe AND get paid PLUS expenses, it was a no brainer. My bags were packed, and I was out the door!
You say that when you came back to NYC you used to play with Potters Daughter. How different was the band then to what it is now.
I think the band is more of a group now than it was then. In the beginning, the band was more of a support to me. Now, we are a team; Jan-Christian is a huge part of the composition process, both Amit and Jan-Christian help me arrange the songs, and certainly, the amazing instrumental prowess of both Amit and Jan-Christian have a huge effect on our sound. As far as the name, Potter’s Daughter, well, my maiden name is Potter. When I was in my early twenties, I played dinner music in several different restaurants. One of them was the Elmhurst Country Club, where my parents are still members. Whenever I would play there, some of my Dad’s golfing buddies always came up to the piano to ask me, “You’re Potter’s Daughter, aren’t you?” I guess it just stuck!
How would you describe Potters Daughter to someone who has never heard you before?
My friend and Melodic Revolution Records labelmate, Joe Deninzon, said it best, I think. He says our music is a lovechild between Joni Mitchell and Bela Bartok. Haha!!! We call it Art Rock/Prog Fusion since our vocal music is quite different in style to our instrumental music. But this is known in Prog, with bands like Frank Zappa and ELP, whose instrumental music was often quite different than their vocal songs.
I am aware our music is difficult to fit into one genre, which poses challenges, mostly for marketing. However, in my opinion, it is exactly our diversity that makes our music interesting and exciting. I come from a classical background, Amit from Jazz Fusion and World Music, Jan-Christian from Jazz, blues, classical. We bring all these sounds and influences into our set.
What do Amit and Jan-Christian bring to the band?
AMIT CHATTERJEEPRODUCER, ARRANGER, GUITARIST
Amit Chatterjee has produced all our recordings thus far and arranged all the songs on The Blind Side. He also plays most of the guitar solos on our recordings. Amit played guitar in jazz legend Joe Zawinul’s band for 11 years, performed in international performances of Zawinul’s symphonic masterpiece “Stories of the Danube” and is featured soloist on the recording of the work on Phillips Classics. Other stellar musicians with whom Amit has worked include: Peter Erskine, Victor Bailey, Manolo Badrena, Badal Roy, Eric Johnson, David Liebman, and many more.
Born and brought up in India in his early years and living in the United States since his teens, Amit has acquired knowledge and experience in both modern Western music (jazz, funk, blues, rock and pop) and North Indian Classical music. It is this rich palette of sounds, harmonies, rhythms, and posture, which Amit brings to all his musical projects. Amit’s playing is passionate, virtuosic, expressive, and sensitive.
JAN-CHRISTIAN VÖGTLINCOMPOSER, BASS, BASS SYNTH
Jan-Christian co-composes almost all our material with me. He is a multi-instrumentalist, primarily playing bass in Potter’s Daughter. Jan-Christian focuses on unrelenting groove, and his wide knowledge of modern jazz harmony, melody, and rhythm allow him to effortlessly combine and move between genres ranging from progressive rock to jazz and fusion to world music. Classically trained in Switzerland (where he was born and raised), his compositions build upon poignant melodies and chordal movement along with a strong rhythmic presence, and are influenced by classical, impressionist, jazz, and fusion schools. One of the most unique aspects of Jan-Christian’s bass playing is his combination of traditional and non-traditional approaches to bass. He solos on the bass as effortlessly as if the instrument were a guitar; he is featured soloist in many of our songs, especially in live performances. Jan-Christian is endorsed by the Ribbecke Guitar Company, with whom he is developing an innovative one-off 7-string bass. He is also known for playing R-Bass and Zon Fretless basses.
How did the collaboration with Annie Haslam come about?
We have been lucky to work together with Billy James from Glass Onyon PR since releasing our debut album. Billy has been a huge help to us. It was he who suggested we approach Annie. We had just recorded a single with Jon Anderson as guest vocalist (we plan to include it on our second album!). Jon was at that time getting ready to go out on tour for his 1000 Hands tour, so there was no time to finish that single and release it. I spoke to Billy about it, and he suggested we record a different song and ask Annie. Billy introduced us and set it up for us. We sent Annie a demo of Blood and Water along with our vision of the collaboration and she loved it! She said she was intrigued to sing on something which showcased her lower register for a change! Annie phoned me and we had a lovely chat, and we arranged the details. She was getting ready for the Strawbs 50th Anniversary Concert, so there was a bit of a time pressure! We quickly sent her the tracks and she recorded her vocals with Rave Tesar at his studio. The whole experience was a great honor for us.
How did you become involved with Nick Katona?
I actually reached out to him! I had been in touch with several record companies; I was interested (and still am) in building a dynamic and enthusiastic team. What makes Nick Katona stand out from the crowd, in my opinion, is his heartfelt style and approach to music and people. I want to work together with motivated people I truly like and respect. And I love Nick!! He is absolutely motivated; he lives and breathes music! And he is respectful, fair, approachable, and open-minded. I am so grateful to be working with him and Melodic Revolution Records!!
You mention the second album – what is it going to be called and when are we likely to be hearing it?
We are playing around with a few different titles at the moment. We have been prolific during quarantine and the songs we want to present on the album keep changing! Jan-Christian and I are spending May/June 2020 organizing the songs and arrangements. Once that is completed, we will decide when we can get everyone together to record. I am old school in that way. I want to record the second album with the band all together in the studio, playing as a unit, just as we recorded ‘The Blind Side’. The energy is just different when we all play together, and I believe it affects the sound. I imagine we will release the album in spring of 2021.
Where can people discover your music and find out more about you and Potter’s Daughter?
We do our best to be present online as much as possible. There are several opportunities to connect with us! Here are our links:
In the middle of last year, I received an email from Daria Kulseh, who has been given my details by the wonderful Elfin Bow. She described her music to me as “a bold fusion of cultures and styles – my Russian and Ingush (see: North Caucasus) heritage is mixed with English and Celtic folk influences, unique and rich family history and a turbulent journey through life. Storytelling plays a crucial part in my songwriting and live performances. True life tales are intertwined with folklore and magic.” I was incredibly intrigued by this and soon fell in love with her album ‘Earthly Delights’. We became friends on Facebook, as a way of keeping in touch, and then two weeks ago I realized she had posted a video of her performing live at home – I’d missed the event due to it being the middle of the night in NZ when it was originally aired. I watched the event and was blown away by it, so much so that Daria and I were soon swapping messages, and I wondered if perhaps she might like to undertake an interview? The result is one of the favorite pieces I have ever been involved with, as Daria has an incredible story to tell, and this knowledge helps bring her songs even more to life. She is an amazing talent, and hopefully, this interview will inspire you to seek her out for yourself.
Who, what and when is Daria Kulesh?
Daria Kulesh is an extremely split personality! My identity is a crazy cocktail of Russian, English and Ingush. Moscow, Russia is where I was born and grew up – so that’s my native heritage, my fond childhood memories and adolescent adventures. England is my adopted home, where I became a wife and a mother; found my path as a performing artist and my language as a songwriter. Ingushetia in the North Caucasus is my Grandmother’s long-lost home, a land that has always fascinated and summoned me – first from a safe distance; but then I answered the call and my life has never been the same. The story and spirit of the Ingush people, their tragic and unique fate, the severe, primordial beauty of their mountains are the lifeblood of my inspiration. Up there, in the mountains, time flows differently – you can hear the voices of the ancestors in the wind, and stories that unfolded in ancient legends feel as real, recent and routine as a cup of coffee you had in the morning. Up there, the soil and the sky meet and intermingle, the past bleeds into the future, the boundaries between myth and history are blurred, and magic is commonplace.
In the words of the Ingush poet Ali Khashagulgov: Where icy summits ring so clear, Their voices can be heard – No earthly soil they’re ploughing here, But heaven’s fields are stirred. Their heavy ploughs are pulled by clouds, Their furrows are of smoke, The sun, with ever watchful eyes, Observes their constant work. They sow no earthly seeds, but stars! Throw handfuls in the air… A song of love the starling starts, The tune is pure and fair. Of spring it sings, of hope it sighs, Of faith in days ahead… Those who can’t see these simple signs Are deader than the dead (Translated by Daria Kulesh)
What are your earliest musical memories and who/what inspired you to start playing music?
I was a very geeky child, an academic achiever, but with what felt like too many strings to my bow. I wasn’t sure whether I preferred art and craft, or poetry, or languages. A Jack of all trades, I had no idea which one to try and master. What I really wanted was to be good at the one thing that seemed completely out of reach – music. Music was my unrequited passion – as a young child, I would sit, silent and spellbound, through classical recitals. My Mum soon discovered that the best way of getting me to behave was the threat of binning concert tickets. Yet, my dream of becoming a violinist had been dashed – aged five, I auditioned for a music school and the verdict was pretty damning. I was pronounced a profoundly tone-deaf no-hoper. In the rigid Soviet system that favored child prodigies nobody wanted to give me a second chance. Despite this brutal reality check, the impossible dream proved too hard to kill – and one night, aged something like eleven, I made a wish before going to sleep: to become good at music. At the cost of all my other skills and strengths, if necessary. Not that I woke up with a coloratura soprano the very next morning, but a couple of years down the line, I randomly picked up a leaflet on the underground – a concert featuring some Scottish folk musicians, that same evening. Out of pure curiosity, I went along. And ended up besotted, not just with the haunting melodies, but with the sheer joy and fun of the performances. Very different from the strait-laced classical world I’d known. I dived into learning all these wonderful Celtic songs and singing them at house parties. People started giving me compliments – at first, I thought they were joking! One thing led to another, and at the age of 18, I became the resident singer at one of Moscow’s Irish pubs, with a backing band of Conservatoire students. I guess I got the job mostly because of my lack of a heavy Russian accent! With a couple of line-up changes, the band had an exciting journey including some TV appearances and performances for the UK Embassy and the British Council. I even ended up lending my tartan outfit to the Russian pop star Glukoza to record her MTV Video Music Awards acceptance speech – the ceremony she couldn’t attend was held in Edinburgh that year.
Anyway, long story short, back in Russia I was merely a singer. And an active, published and performing, poet. Playing instruments and writing songs came much, much later: my first instrument was a bodhran bought in Nova Scotia, along with a tin whistle (which I’ve never practiced enough!); then years later, in England, I discovered first the guitar, urged by a friend – which, to my complete amazement, suddenly enabled me to write tunes and songs – and then the Shruti box, inspired by seeing Maz O’Connor perform. At the moment I’m using the quarantine to practice some other instruments that people have kindly gifted me over the years – the Appalachian dulcimer and the Kazakh dombra, plus the far less exotic piano keyboard and loop pedal. On my recent home live performances, you will also see me playing the Shruti box, aka “squeezy suitcase” (as described by one of my younger audience members). I bought it on eBay for £75 and it was delivered all the way from India!
Your grandmother was obviously a huge inspiration in many ways, please tell us about some of the stories she told you which you later turned into songs.
Her most important story was of her own parents, Diba Posheva and Rashid-Bek Akhriev, the Moon and the Pilot, and of her people’s deportation by Joseph Stalin on 23rd February 1944. It’s a story that combines beauty and stoic heroism with unspeakable brutality, it’s a story of sacrifice and horrific injustice – but ultimately, of love that can’t be killed, of the human spirit that can’t be broken. When I perform live (used to perform live? Crazy times!), I share with my audience an album of precious family photographs kept by my grandmother. While she was alive, she never showed them to me, I didn’t even know they’d existed. But after she passed away, she left me a sealed package. When I opened it, all the people from her stories sprung back to vivid life. Her descriptions of them were so extraordinary, I knew instantly who everyone was… Her mother, the Moon, a beauty with luminous snow-white skin framed by the blackness of her hair. Her father, the heroic Pilot with sad, mild, knowing eyes. Her own grandmother, proud and prim, solid and sharp, like an ancestral stone tower – the wise matriarch who speaks up in defense of her daughter’s unorthodox choice of a husband and wins, with pure elegance and common sense, against prejudice and conservatism. Her Uncle, the gentleman doctor, the brilliant dancer – grace and steel combined, seemingly immune, in his unshakeable nobility, to the ugliness and cruelty of the world. It felt like being struck by lightning, I was electrified, set alight – songs just came pouring out… “The Moon and the Pilot”, “The Hazel Tree”, “Like a God”, “Safely Wed”, “Only Begun” – all of these songs on my ‘Long Lost Home’ album are rooted in my grandmother’s stories.
I’m a little intrigued that you are a published poet. Were you writing about Ingushetia back then as well?
I was indeed as that was a way of coping with my grandmother’s passing… A few of my songs – “Safely Wed”, “Fata Morgana”, “The Hazel Tree”, “Only Begun” – are based on earlier Russian poems. Being fully aware of my grandmother’s illness for years – in fact, all the time I got to spend with her was borrowed time – I knew how precious her memories were and kept writing everything down. Not just the bare bones of the stories, but all the witty little phrases and metaphors and the vivid images they evoked. The main difference between the earlier poems and the later songs is the viewpoint which informs the tone. The poems were penned by a curious outsider, sometimes perplexed by the “exotic” culture; years later, the songs carry a sense of belonging, a much deeper understanding, and respect.
So how come you ended up in the UK?
In 2006, I was employed by a Russian luxury lifestyle magazine as a travel writer and sent to the UK on the hunt for stories. Music and poetry weren’t my livelihood at the time, in Russia one was expected to have a “real job” and I’d chosen my career quite early on, volunteering and working for various young people’s publications since I was 13. Once in the UK, I traveled to beauty spots and cultural landmarks, interviewed museum and theatre directors, writers, artists, and performers. One of the most glamorous perks of the job was reviewing upmarket hotels and restaurants… as well as folk festivals! (the latter was my idea, obviously) There was a sinister side to this world of luxury, too, as reflected in my song Fake Wonderland. Also, when the magazine started running into serious financial difficulty and my wages evaporated, some situations I found myself in were deliciously absurd – for example, flying with Ryanair to a 5-day luxury fam trip of Scotland with a tiny bag, and wearing most of my clothes in ridiculous cabbage layers – I was due to stay at The Balmoral and Gleneagles, yet paying an excess baggage fee would have meant genuine financial trouble. In the middle of this crazy penniless life of occasional ultra-luxury, I met my future husband, and the rest is history.
What did you think of the UK music scene when you arrived, and how did you get involved in it?
I had absolutely no clue how things worked and had to start completely from scratch… Open mics were great fun but didn’t really lead to anything – my goal wasn’t necessarily to make any money, but to find musicians to play with. At the time, I couldn’t play any instruments and hadn’t written any songs apart from some lyrics to other people’s tunes. So, I gave folk clubs a try, and at first, got a few things terribly wrong – such as bringing backing tracks to sing along to. I did the odd pub gig with local musician friends I made along the way, singing either Irish songs or an embarrassing selection of covers. Slowly but surely though, having picked up a couple of guitar chords, I started writing songs, finding my way on the folk scene and getting feedback, both encouraging and constructive. It was at Uxbridge Folk Club that Archie, the organizer, played the musical matchmaker and, in a stroke of mad genius, introduced me to my first UK band, KARA. The band ended up developing a very original Anglo-Russian sound, made even more exotic by the combination of accordion and hammered dulcimer, and our debut album was acclaimed by The Telegraph and bootlegged by Amazon… Also, in a quirk of fate, I presented a show called Folk DJ on a local community radio station, and that was a great way of meeting people for interviews and live sessions as well as listening to loads of records and generally getting quite immersed into the scene. Generally, I found the folk community very friendly and family-like, the main difference with Russia is that if you see your music journey (or “career” if you like, although I’m not a fan of the word) as a ladder, in the UK you can slowly climb from the ground up to a considerable height. In Russia, you can make it as far as the first couple of steps and then there’s a void, the middle rungs are missing… to go any higher, you usually need a helicopter lift – a huge cash injection which can only come from an ultra-rich sponsor/benefactor. I feel very grateful for the way the UK folk scene is set up in such a welcoming, informal way, surrounded and nurtured by an amazing community of music appreciators.
Did working with Kara lead directly to your first solo album, ‘Eternal Child’? Looking back on it from five years, how would you describe it now?
‘Eternal Child’ felt like a vanity project, a selection of very confessional, unashamedly revealing stories, and I was blown away by the response to it. I had been worried that the thoughts and sentiments expressed in the album were too personal and quirky to mean anything at all to other people. It was released in contrast to the theatrical, dramatic, make-believe, over-the-top realm of KARA – which I’d thought had a much broader appeal.
I would describe it as a “twilight” album, compared to ‘Long Lost Home’’s moonlit darkness and ‘Earthly Delights’’ bright sunrise. Back then, I found inspiration in the shadows and was one of those artists who feel they can’t write happy songs. Also, Eternal Child was therapy – at the time I was giving up on the idea of motherhood (or so I thought!) and coming to terms with it. I embraced being different from most people, looked at the world with the eyes of a child who will never grow up, clinging on to the echoes of lost innocence, shadowy memories, and dreams. Yet there were some things that I saw very clearly, such as human weaknesses and fakeness. One should be very careful around children – they are watching us, understanding a lot more than we realize. And some children grow up to be singer-songwriters…
Five years later, I’m looking back at ‘Eternal Child’ and realize that I have, somehow, grown-up. Yet I do miss being that child, too.
The second album, ‘Long Lost Home’, has a real back story to it, how did it come about?
It all started with one song – “The Moon and the Pilot”, a song that wrote itself in a matter of minutes and took me on a whirlwind journey – first, to the studios of BBC World Service and from there, unexpectedly, to my grandmother’s lost homeland of Ingushetia. The BBC World Service broadcast was seen by my grandmother’s nephew, the son of her estranged brother, and him reaching out to me was the first, mind-blowing step toward rebuilding burnt family bridges. Then, also on the back of that fateful broadcast, I was officially invited to visit Ingushetia by Rustam Tarkoev, who became my guide, host, and advisor and also introduced me to the incredible Timur Dzeytov, then People’s Artist of Ingushetia and now its Minister of Culture. The strange thing about that visit was my sudden celebrity status, the TV talk shows and the audiences with politicians – yet, as much as most people were very keen to give me the most glamorous impression of life in my grandmother’s native land, I saw enough of the truth, heard enough of the real stories. The generosity and warmth of the people – despite their often tragic, sometimes horrifying life stories – was deeply humbling, and their love of life infectious. I was also completely awestruck by the beauty of the mountains and the towers. Finally, I arrived on the soil of my grandmother’s ancestral nest and felt such a deep, blissfully aching sense of belonging, as if my feet were growing roots. I felt grounded, no longer the fleeting spirit, Peter Pan, the Eternal Child. The Ingush word for happiness – “iraz” – means, literally, a plot of land. I have found mine.
After that journey, some songs got changed and enhanced. Some got written from scratch. And for certain, Long Lost Home would not have been the same had I not found it…
Your most recent album, ‘Earthly Delights’, was released in 2019 and you describe it as “Bright sunrise”. When I reviewed it I said that it was “Simply awesome… an album which should be in every music lover’s collection“. How would you describe it to someone who hasn’t heard it? Take us through the songs.
‘Earthly Delights’ is a celebration – fun and upbeat, whimsical and mischievous. It’s a grateful and playful exploration of human nature; of love, desire, ambition and other urges that drive us, both physical and spiritual. It retells and twists fairy tales, episodes from history, urban legends – rich old stories that are timeless, ever-relevant and relatable. “Great battles of love and life” that we all live through, every day. If I can make my listeners gasp: “That Russian fairytale – wow, feels as if it’s all happened to me!” – then my work is done. A review in FATEA Magazine says that my songs “aren’t just sung, but lived”. When I perform, I become the characters in my songs. I tell the stories by living them.
To recoup my journey as a songwriter and storyteller, ‘Eternal Child’ was a surprisingly well-received very private, very confessional album from a time when I was still figuring out my path, my place in life. Back then, darker stories seemed more appealing and nuanced, more interesting to explore as a detached, childlike observer. Having matured through the making of my second album ‘Long Lost Home’ – a life-changing journey to my Grandmother’s homeland of Ingushetia in the Caucasus that opened my eyes and my heart – I was handed the great responsibility of telling stories that really mattered. People’s reactions to my song “The Moon and the Pilot” in particular have been incredible and humbling. Music no longer felt like a self-indulgent vanity project. I had something to offer that people truly wanted and needed. Also, my vision has changed – now my inspiration doesn’t just live in dark places; the new songs are full of light, shade, and color. Of lust for life. One of the covers on the album – “Quiet Joys of Brotherhood” – reflects and embraces my deep belief that “love is lord of all”, an ever-present force, like gravity, that connects all living things. And the penultimate song, “Made of Light”, claims that the more love we leave behind in the world, the longer we live on.
From a completely different angle, “Shame or Glory” is another song inspired by the current stage of my journey, by this new understanding and maturity, by the sheer joy and fulfillment I’ve discovered in my art – regardless of any competitive aspects, any awards or other forms of formal recognition. While singing songs and telling stories is a reward in itself; while you feel like you simply can’t be doing anything else – nothing else matters! And in that, all truly possessed artistic souls are united in a brotherhood of holy fools – whether you are the ridiculed William McGonagall or the revered Vincent van Gogh.
Also, ‘Earthly Delights’ is deeply rooted in my native language, the emotional landscape of my culture, the old stories that I was told and read as a child, such as the tales of Vasilisa and Morozko – all of that is at the core of who I am. I have grown many cultural and linguistic layers, and my music is a fusion of many influences, described by some as an “ambitious culture clash” – but underneath all that, my native background is the soil from which all these fanciful flowers and strange fruit grow. Interestingly, on the new album, I have a W.B. Yeats poem, set to music by Joseph Sobol – “Cap and Bells”. The reason I picked that song is because it echoes the familiar plot of a classic Russian novel, which in turn is based on a powerful true story.
My favorite song on the album is probably “Golden Apples”, It’s such a fun, playful song to perform, and I have fond memories of fleshing out the arrangement with the supremely talented Jonny Dyer during a wonderful tour of Scotland in October 2018. It’s written from the point of view of a magical, whimsical creature – the Firebird of Russian folklore. She represents – to me – pure unchained desire, pleasure without consequence. She flies into the Tsar’s garden at night to steal, uncaught and unpunished, his most precious treasure – the magical golden apples. The Tsar sends his sons to catch the mystery thief; but the Firebird’s enchantment sends them into a deep sleep, night after night. From the Firebird’s uncluttered perspective, what’s the point of all that effort to guard something you possess, but never dare to enjoy? We all have hungry Firebirds held captive in our ribcages, desires we will never release, perhaps not even confess to. If we were to release them, all at once, the world would catch alight!
The whole album is full of complex, often ambivalent characters – the seductive and childlike Rusalka, who turns a pious old monk’s world upside down; the brave and ruthless Vasilisa, who becomes a queen at a considerable moral cost. Most of the songs on ‘Earthly Delights’ can be described as “morality tales” – no wonder that several of the songs – “Pride of Petravore”, “Greedy King” – have deadly sins in their titles. Yet, the rigid biblical framework of virtue and sin is shaken and stirred by the pure, pagan lust for life and enjoyment of everything this world has to offer. In “Greedy King”, the moral of the story is that shameless, primal, indestructible joy can be found down the deepest well of despair, and that’s how life triumphs over death itself. And the title track encourages you to:
Be greedy – for joy! Be lusty – for life! Be proud – of what makes you stand tall. No deadlier sin Than a heart without love. Feed your fire, Sing the song of your soul!
Since leaving Moscow you have flourished as a performer, become a wife and a mother, and investigated your grandmother’s heritage among other things. What is next (after the current situation)?
After my very short maternity leave, I found so much new joy in performing and uncovering previously unseen layers and meanings in my existing material. It felt like I was connecting with my audiences on a whole new level. I’ve also incorporated some new songs, such as tender, exquisite traditional lullabies and a couple of covers. My own writing, however, has been dormant – but that’s not a worry. I’m finding a lot of magic, inspiration, and nourishment in motherhood, but it will take time to distill these new discoveries into songs, it’s a natural process, a necessary pause as I’m adjusting to a new way of being, of rediscovering the world through my daughter’s eyes. I can’t wait to be performing live again though as before the lockdown it felt better than ever this year, totally exhilarating – even more so, I can’t wait to collaborate with my amazing musician friends in various duo and trio outfits, and in exciting projects such as Joseph Sobol’s incredible “folk opera” based on the life and poetry of W.B. Yeats.
Meanwhile, here is a quote that really resonates at the moment, as I gaze upon the slowed-down world with a mix of childlike wonder and giddy gratitude for the joy and beauty of nature. In the words of Ali Khashagulgov, as he returned to Ingushetia, his homeland, after long years of exile:
“Woodpeckers are drumming on the tree trunks, dropping dust onto the ground. I am drunk, Homeland, drunk with my love for you! You alone are in my thoughts, I dreamed so tirelessly about you from a distance. And now I’m wandering in your woods, like a madman… My heart is pounding; it is glad – like a cuckoo that’s broken free from the human grip. Every berry-laden branch of the viburnum shrub is like a blushing bride. And the spider among elderberry leaves is weaving me a white scarf with silver threads. I am giddy with its aroma! The sun ripens a sweet red apple, caressing it, cheek-to-cheek, and cornel berries are like embers in my mouth …How I love all of this! I am keen to kneel before your every tree, as I would before a priest. In foreign lands, so long have I dreamed of seeing you! And now woodpeckers are drumming on the tree trunks, greeting me after a long separation.”
(Translated by Daria Kulesh)
Where can people find out more information, purchase your music, or watch your home concerts?
My website – www.daria-kulesh.co.uk – is quite busy and informative, do take a peek! Discover my music and art, learn more about Ingushetia, connect with my social media pages, and even watch my online home concerts (via the links on the Gigs page). And when we can gather again to celebrate the magic of songs and stories, I very much hope to meet you in the real world!
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.
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