An amplified interview with Amplifier

Following my Amplifier reviews, I am privileged to be joined by bassist Neil Mahony and occasionally by guitarist and vocalist Sel Balamir for this chat.


Roger: Thanks for giving us your time to this e-natter. First up, can I just say what a great gig the band played at XOYO in London last month. You all looked like you enjoyed yourselves, I know we did. It was great to see Bruce and the others from Pineapple Thief taking in the last part of your set stood next to us in the audience. How was the after gig party?!

Neil: Hi Roger, cheers for that! Yeah we had a great time. On the way home after a tour you can’t beat a couple of nice homecoming gigs! We had had 3 weeks of partying before that show so we just took it nice and easy in London. Manchester was another story though….

Roger: How did the band meet and how long ago? Have any of you been in bands before Amplifier?

Neil: The guys had been in Manchester at college and I was working in a music store around the corner so they were regulars – Sel was this cool guy who I used to chat to when he came in and Matt used to bother me every week trying to get Zildjian 3A drumsticks! They had a project and when I heard it I became a bass player – because that is what they needed!

Roger: The massive sprawling splendid beast of a thing that is The Octopus was created from start to finish without the support of a label. That must have been bloody hard work! Give us an idea of what was involved. Would you advise other bands to go the same route after your experiences, particularly in regards to having to cope with the more boring admin side of things?

Neil: It is an unbelievable amount of work but in the end it is the most rewarding way to do it. To be honest I’m not sure that people really know just how much time and effort it does take – it’s very easy to advise a young band to go it alone but if you’ve got a bunch of guys who are giving it a go for the first time – well there are a lot of sacrifices to make. You can’t do it and go out with your mates every night. You can’t hold down a regular job and have enough time to write, record, rehearse etc as much as you need to to keep up with the competition. In my opinion you either do it or you don’t – there are no half measures. Sure it can be a fun and rewarding hobby but that is not really what we’re talking about.

Roger: Still on The Octopus, were the songs written before going to the studio, or did they lurch blinking into the daylight from jamming sessions?

Neil: With the exception of The Runner and Utopian Daydream they we’re all written before going in. However the majority of the rest were borne of jamming and recording and re-jamming and re-recording – over and over until it is right. This is a constant ongoing process. Some of nucleus ideas actually came from jams we had when recording the previous album.

Roger: Sel – Were the lyrics written beforehand or fitted round the music? Also, I’ve heard that you’re not a comics fan, so what informs the sci-fi influence in your lyrics?

Sel: Who said I don’t like comics? Comics are the purest form of self realised speculative imagination. It’s true though – I don’t like those magazines that housewives read…

Roger: Fair enough! There’s also a definite social/environmental consciousness running through your lyrics. Personally, having grown up with and had my mind opened by The Clash, do you think music still has a role to play in the modern info-overload world in forming a fan’s viewpoint on politics, social, environmental or personal?

Neil: I think it is the duty of every single person on this planet to develop a social consciousness and it is completely normal for anyone to have their work, whatever it may be, informed by their views on these matters. Music is no different. I’m pretty certain that the majority will know that their views and opinions are influenced by a whole host of external and indeed internal forces – it doesn’t just come from newspapers. It’s not so much the art-form as it is the artist.

Roger: The Octopus came with a set of stickers for promoting the cause. What’s the strangest place you’ve seenone, or been told about?

Neil: There is one on a UN boat on the Nile and also one in the inner sanctum of the US Congress. I kid you not! We can’t say how it got there though…

Roger: What’s next for the concept of The Octopus, or would that be giving too much away?

Neil: Well it’s not really for us to say – we just created the monster. As Dr. Frankenstein realised way too late: there is a reason why man and god need to be kept separate.

Roger: What musical influences do you all share, and what sets you apart that results in Amplifier’s distinctive sound? What bands float your boats at the moment?

Neil: We all grew up with similar influences – all the usual stuff really. To be honest the sound of the three of us in a room is the biggest influence on what we do. When we are together in our studio, things happen. Things that happen based on who we are and what tools we have to hand at the time. A new distortion pedal is as likely to contribute as is a shared love of John Carpenter movies.

Roger: You used Charlie Barnes’ keyboards on the album. Do you forsee a time when a full time keyboard player might be introduced to give the sound a new dimension?

Neil: Nah. We have enough geeks in this band already!

Roger: Ha ha! I see what you did there… :)  As someone who’s never got past mastering two and a half chords on the old geetar it always amazes me how a guitarist copes with the numerous effects pedals at his or her feet, and looking at yours and Sel’s effects boards after the XOYO show got me thinking, do you ever hit the wrong one by mistake, and does anyone outside of the band actually notice?!

Neil: Ha ha! I’ve actually done a whole show without any of them and our press officer at the time said it was the best he had ever seen us! I think some people really get off on that side of it (we see them taking photos of our boards every night!) and others don’t care. I guess it is natural to want to know the magician’s secret but deep down most of us don’t want the illusion to be compromised. We make mistakes all the time – sometimes it’s painfully obvious and others it just sounds like we are experimenting!

Roger: It’s refreshing, to these ears at least, to find a metal-flavoured band that has a singer who sings, rather than inflicting the almost obligatory barbed wire gargling on its audience, something I have always struggled with to the point of turning the cd off when listening to Prog-Metal bands. Long may it continue as it sets you apart from the rest!

Neil: When I first listened to Amplifier just before I joined, I was listening to Motorhead (the Amplifier song, not the band!) and thinking to myself, ‘I hope the singing doesn’t come in and ruin this great groove’. Thankfully it didn’t. I find Sel’s vocals to be almost folky in melody.

Roger: My sentiments exactly! I’m listening to the marvellous Trading Dark Matter On The Stock Exchange while I’m typing this, and to these well musically travelled ears it is definitely “Prog”, which can cover a multitude of sins! Where do you see Amplifier fitting into the music scene in general?

Neil: Whatever people want to call it is fine. We gave up long ago trying to see where we fit – it just doesn’t matter anymore does it? Somebody described us years ago as Heavy Wood (!) and I don’t think that has been bettered. I do however find some musical labels helpful – if something is described as Brainfuck Noisecore then I am usually pretty sure what to expect.

Roger: Along with Amplifier, another three piece who are given a Sci-Fi/ Metal/Prog tag, fairly or not, are Muse. No doubt you wouldn’t mind (and more than deserve in my opinion) some of their success, but I somehow doubt Muse would dare offer you a support slot! Has The Octopus given you the chance to progress up the ladder? Where do you see Amplifier going in the future in terms of gaining more exposure?

Neil: We’ve got some things happening that could potentially move us up a little but major exposure is so difficult to orchestrate. The Octopus has definitely opened us up to being noticed by a new group of fans but we need so much more if we are to be able to continue. Right now it is not sustainable. Yeah and if I was Matt Bellamy there is no way in a million years I would let Amplifier anywhere near my stage.

Roger: Well, I reckon the band will get some of the bigger exposure you deserve, as you have recently announced that Amplifier will be supporting Dream Theater in Austria & Poland later this month. How did that come about? You must be thrilled, and maybe a bit nervous?

Sel: Well, that came about by me hustling the right people. That’s what it’s all about in the end. We’re thrilled to play on big stages – we always are. We don’t get nervous about stuff like that, anymore than we get nervous about going home…

Roger: What else is coming up work wise, or do you deserve a holiday?!

Neil: No time for a holiday! We’re looking at releasing a live DVD and accompanying album. We’re also determined to get back to recording as soon as possible but there are things in the way at the moment. We’ve got some more shows and some nice festivals to do and hopefully a tour in autumn if it is viable. We need to know that we can sell enough tickets so we don’t come back with a loss – we simply cannot afford that.

Roger: Thank you both for giving us your time, and as I’m off for my dinner, could you tell us all what your favourite cuisines are? :)

Neil: Steak frites and an Orange Whip all round…

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