I recently sat down for an interview with J.R. Fernandez of up-and-coming Colorado prog rock project Novus Rex. We had a lot of fun talking about his music, shared musical idols, and lots of other stuff. Feel free to check out the review of Novus Rex’s debut album that I wrote recently as well, for more context on the project.
Dan: Hi J.R, thanks for having this interview with me. Would you like to start by introducing yourself and your son? That is, if he won’t mind. Also, what do J.R. and A.I. stand for?
J.R.: Ah… J.R. and A.I… We’d like to keep that our little secret! We want the focus on the music. Plus, our names are generic, so we decided to go the abbreviation route. Had we had some unique names we might have used them… I’m J.R, the dad… I’ve been around music for a long time. I play all of the keyboards and drums; and some of the guitars and try to sing a little bit, too. My son A.I. is a young guy, he’s actually in High School, and plays 4 or 5 instruments… Losing count! Plays guitar, bass, sax, flute and some vibes; and drums, too. He’s quite talented with the instruments. He’s been playing music since he could speak, practically.
Dan: And yet no flute on the album?
J.R.: Funny you should say that. It’s there in the album… But it’s buried a bit. Some of the synth-sounding flute is actually FLUTE! [laughs] It’s used sparingly.
Dan: You know, I might just have missed it. I’m going to put it on in a bit and check again.
J.R.: At the beginning of Belteshazzar’s Dream you can hear it. We’re writing/recording a new piece that’s reached a point where it may need a flute… And we were actually going to record it today, but it didn’t work out.
Dan: Well, there’s no reason you can’t blend that sort of flute work with your style if you can find the right way to do it. Anyway, we’ll get to what you’re working on later.
J.R.: Ok. Back to me now. I’m a prog head from the original days… The 70’s… Grew up on all of the big names and some of the smaller ones. Growing up in the NYC metropolitan area opened my ears to jazz at a very young age. Got into fusion via Chick Corea. My first jazz album was ‘Now He Sings, Now He Sobs’. Forget how old I was, but I was in my early teens. That record BLEW MY MIND. It still does! But, before that record I listened to Tarkus, which was the one record that opened the door to jazz, and the one before Tarkus, that opened the door for everything else, was Santana Abraxas. That’s the record that had me going to my folks, begging for organ lessons. I HAD to learn the B3 and that was my FIRST instrument. Then, of course, came Yes. The Yes album, that was a different type of music that came AFTER EL&P, so basically I came to prog via the keys first, which is why I’m so into the keys.
Dan: That makes sense. How did you two go about forming Novus Rex?
J.R.: It was a solo project that I’d been working on for a number of years. I’d been involved in recording other people’s music in some facet or another… I started back in northern New Jersey with a guy name Mike Poeschl(sounds like Porsche, with an L). He turned me on to recording. He had a really nice recording studio and did demos for bands and that’s how I got into the whole recording thing. But Novus Rex was an idea I had about melding Prog with Symphonic Electronica… I really dig Vangelis and Mike Oldfield and, of course, Jean-Michel Jarre and was trying to meld all that into a prog rock sound. And I don’t know if I’ve achieved that, or if it’s even important at this point, but that’s what Novus Rex was, and is, all about…
Dan: Works of art rarely end up the way they begin. Thick as a Brick was famously intended to be a bit of Pythonesque satire, but I don’t really see that in the finished product. Maybe in A Passion Play.
J.R.: Great example! Yes, TAAB really morphed into something HUGE and very different than where it started. Interesting you should mention ‘A Passion Play’. I was just listening to it and I think that album is FANTASTIC and may very well contain JT’s most virtuosic moments. Certainly, the keyboard work is tops; probably the best in all of the Tull catalog.
Dan: Tell us something about the “concept” of the album. There seems to be a lot of talk of war and strife, and then there’s the title, which evokes that old quote, and makes us think you’re speaking of an end of peace and a coming of the apocalypse. So depressing!
J.R.: Ah! Interesting, yes… Good question. I like history, which was my favorite subject in school. I also read the Bible… Well, I STUDY the Bible and the history of the scriptures. I also like to learn about other religions as much as I can; but the Bible has some stuff in it that is quite stunning in how it points to what is happening now, in our current society… The History channel had a whole thing about Armageddon; I think they called it ‘Armageddon Week’, and it highlighted how many of the Bible’s prophecies are being fulfilled TODAY. It was interesting because the secular scholars and typical non-believers who were interviewed for that show found it difficult to chalk it ALL up to coincidence or ‘chance’. Most admitted that the scriptures are remarkably accurate. I think that many people are looking to the Bible for answers these days, and rightly so. As for the title ‘Plowshares Into Swords’, it’s probably MUCH different than what people are accustomed to seeing/hearing. For instance, the United Nations has ‘Swords Into Plowshares’ written on one of its monuments: The famous one of the man bending a sword into a tool that can be used for work… The UN also has a large monument of a gun with the barrel twisted and unusable, also signifying PEACE. But, who would dare say we are at PEACE?! The book of Joel, in the old testament (Hebrew Scriptures) talks about God allowing men to turn ‘Plowshares Into Swords’, thus giving humankind the room and the freedom to blow ourselves up, if we so choose… I guess Neal Pert wouldn’t like how ‘Free Will’ turned out, ha?
Dan: Actually I think that fits in with his message. People following an unearthly guide with some celestial voice instead of their own will. Neal’s I mean.
J.R.: Neal’s lyrics in ‘Free Will’ can be interpreted in more than one way. I’ve always thought that the song served as an anthem for those who live without regard for the guide of a ‘celestial voice’… As if to say: ‘I don’t need a guide…I have FREE WILL!’ … At least that’s what I get from those Pert lyrics. In complete contrast to the Rush song, the concept of ‘Plowshares Into Swords’ is one that tries to highlight where Free Will has taken man… If man is to exercise that Free Will WITHOUT following said ‘celestial voice’… [laughs]…. Disregard for the ‘celestial voice’ has pretty much taken us down the tube! That being said, the conclusion of the album is NOT depressing at all. On the contrary! If you listen and follow the lyrics of the title track it’s clear that the hope is for the Earth to return to the original ‘paradise’; the scriptures are quite clear about said ‘hope’ and that fact didn’t escape the overly-critical scholars of the ‘Armageddon Week’ series… BTW, I don’t want to come across as a ‘messenger’; I don’t like that. I simply write about my observations of how the scriptures shed light on the current state of affairs. The album shouldn’t be taken as a prophetic source; at most it should raise the listener’s curiosity to give the scriptures a chance. Folks should read the scriptures for themselves if they want to learn what they teach and not rely on musicians to feed them ‘the message’. The idea of being ‘saved’ via the message of an album, or while attending a concert, is quite absurd to me.
Dan: Without being Morse-preachy. Not to name names!
J.R.: Haha! Yeah, he’s very DIRECT about his message and quite prolific with it, which amazes me. He has a LOT to say! I have my beliefs/faith and such, but I really want Novus Rex to be, primarily, about the music… I write lyrics about what moves me and for the past two decades I’ve been moved by how the world is hurting… 9/11, Gulf Wars, Balkan genocide, both WWs, etc… How about the Gulf of Mexico leak? That is absolutely horrific. Stuff like that makes me want to write lyrics. But my style is minimalistic. I like to get the point across in as few words as possible and why you won’t see a long-winded diatribe of lyrics on any Novus Rex recording. Another reason why I like the ‘prog’ framework: the writer doesn’t have to adhere to any verse-chorus-verse formula. If the lyrics are long-winded, then that’s fine (ala Jon Anderson and Neal Morse) and if they are minimal, that’s fine too. There aren’t any rules in ‘prog’ and that’s very liberating for the artist.
Dan: Thankfully the music isn’t depressing. I wouldn’t exactly call it “cheerful” either, but that isn’t really a bad thing. It somehow manages to be “heavy”, without being “metal”. Was this what you were going for?
J.R.: BINGO! You got it. How to be “heavy” without being metal. That was certainly a MAIN goal when writing and arranging Plowshares. I’m trying to avoid any ‘metal’ elements simply because EVERYONE is doing metal these days. It’s almost a given that you will read a review on a new prog band and bang! They are a prog ‘metal’ band. The landscape may be saturated a bit too much. However, there are some bands, like the one you’ve recently showcased on your site, Persona Grata, that do it very, very tastefully and, should I dare say, progressively. Those cats are TRULY progressive in EVERY sense of the word. I really dig their sound… My son, as a young man, likes the metal guitar riffs and we MAY be adding a little bit here and there, but only as a dressing of the music, not as a main feature.
Dan: A lot of that has to do with Dream Theater’s pervading influence today. They’re what introduces most people to prog nowadays.
J.R.: Wow! Yeah, absolutely! DT has set a trend that has been spiraling for about ten years now. I completely agree. In fact, a guy from somewhere in Asia contacted me via our web site after hearing a few samples and asked if the rest of our music “sounded like Dream Theater”. I got the impression that he would ONLY listen to our music if we sounded like DT! That’s pretty sad, actually; narrow-minded and unadventurous.
Dan: You get a lot of bands that just try to copy DT because they’re what’s big, and they also aren’t *really* mainstream.
J.R.: Yes, you are SO right about DT and how most every new ‘prog’ band tries to copy them in some way or other. However, their vocalist, LaBrie, is very special and seems to be part of the attraction.
Dan: It’s interesting you say that, because LaBrie is the part of DT that I dislike the most!
Dan: I saw them play live in Asbury Park (ProgNation), and I loved their set, but I suddenly realized I would prefer them as an instrumental band
J.R.: Sounds to me like you prefer more instrumental music -vs- lyrics/vocals?
Dan: Most definitely. It depends on the vocalist though. I’m a huge fan of Andy Tillison, Rikard Sjoblom, Ian Anderson, Peter Hammill, but in general I prefer instrumental stuff.
J.R.: Ah! You like the ‘artistic’, character-laden voice.
Dan: Yes, none of that “I’m going to do my best to sound like Robert Plant” crap.
J.R.: Anderson and Hammill are GENIUSES in every sense of the word. I think their pictures are in the dictionary next to the word ‘genius’.
Dan: I consider those two the greatest rock lyricists ever to have existed. Hammill more consistantly so, though.
J.R.: But that’s difficult to pull off… It takes a complete artist to do the kind of composing, arranging, lyric writing and singing that those two guys do. They are VERY special. The fact that I’m a techie, synth guy doesn’t mean I don’t dig Anderson. He’s one of my favorite musicians of all-time. I’m still mesmerized every time I play Songs From the Wood. I remember the day it came out… I ran to the store, ran home… Popped it into the record player and to this day it’s the CLEANEST prog recording I’ve ever heard.
Dan: Third favorite Tull album IMO, after Heavy Horses and Thick as a Brick (reverse order).
J.R.: Interesting… with me, the order is reversed. Talking JT and VDGG, that’s some serious, serious music… It takes an amazing level of talent to be like those guys… We will definitely be adding more acoustic guitars to the next CD, the current piece we’re working on has more acoustic guitars than anything we’ve done to date. Of course, when I write for acoustic guitars I’m always thinking of ways to layer synths on top of them. Just my style, I suppose. As I’ve told you, EL&P has left an indelible mark on my music conscience.
J.R.: Stuff like Lucky Man, Still You Turn Me On… Just LOVE that stuff.
Dan: My top five on Last.fm, if it tells you anything, are Van Der Graaf Generator, Pain of Salvation, The Tangent, Beardfish, and Return to Forever. I’d say that’s a pretty accurate judge of my tastes.
Dan: It doesn’t include any Italian prog though, which is pretty big for me. Interestingly Italian Prog is the only subtype where I generally enjoy all vocals, and don’t yearn for instrumental sections. Though they’re always welcome.
J.R.: Oh yeah! I’ve been listening to PFM non-stop for the past week. Italian prog is sublime. It has a certain romantic element to it, even when they freak on the Moogs, which is very tasteful.
Dan: Which is almost strange, because those guys were all in love with Peter Hammill. And Hammill is anything but elegant.
J.R.: You think!? I think Hammill is the epitome of elegance.
Dan: Well, lyrically, but musically I consider his music to be very chaotic. And I like it that way.
J.R.: I can imagine him playing while in a tux, or dinner jacket.
J.R.: Oh, I see, right. The music is ‘hard’ and jazz-like… Almost as if Coltrane had entered the prog realm, but the lyrics and vocals are very elegant.
Dan: We’ve talked about your fascination with prog keyboards, and I’ve mentioned in my review that this is the highlight of the album for me. You told me you thought it was cool that I noticed the similarity to Ayreon in your use of down-tuned Hammonds. So I can assume that was something you did intentionally? Tell me something about your other keyboard influences besides Arjen and Keith Emerson, who you’ve mentioned before. Leave out Chick Corea for now too, we’ll get to him in a minute!
J.R.: Arjen… He’s amazing. His vision is cinematic and I think I share the same vision musically, but I don’t have the similar lyrical vision. He’s sci-fi, I’m earth bound. He was most certainly an influence on Plowshares, from the concept perspective and the use of choruses and crescendos and the movie soundtrack themes that are found throughout the music. I really like that you caught that. All of the other reviewers and interviewers missed it completely. However, as I said earlier, I did my best to NOT use any metal guitars. I wanted to distance myself from Arjen and others who are doing similar things. I did that consciously. As for other influences… Lyle Mays of the Pat Metheny Group, he’s amazing… I’ve seen the PMG countless times, and with all due respect to Pat, Lyle is the reason I am a fan of the Group and why I go to the shows. He’s such a humble guy. I am really into his playing and his first solo album is one of my favs of all-time. Real spacey, yet organic. He achieved a masterpiece there, on his first try… I grew up listening to Joe Zawinul and he’s the reason why I play the Korg Prophecy and Z1, which are my main lead synths. Joe played stuff that I felt I was playing… Whenever I would hear a Weather Report album, I’d say: “I can play that!” Of course, I was 16 years old and it took me years to learn to play some of the WR standards.
Dan: I’ve never liked Weather Report nearly as much as Mahavishnu Orchestra or Return to Forever, but I still enjoy them from time to time. There’s nothing about them I DISLIKE. I don’t know what it is, really. Maybe the intensity?
J.R.: They’re a different breed altogether. They were necessary for fusion. They were complementary to what RTF and MO did.
Dan: Yeah, I don’t really compare them.
J.R.: They tend to be mellower than the aforementioned bands, for sure. However, they can get quite intense in their own right. They were more “groovy” than the other two.
Dan: Probably the “jazziest” of the three. MO being the most insane, RtF being the most melodic.
J.R.: RTF was cosmic, MO was tangent and freaky, while WT was groovy. That’s the way I categorize those three bands.
Dan: Cosmic, that works too.
J.R.: Certainly Romantic Warrior was cosmic. To this day it’s the most complete recording I’ve ever heard… Outside of some of the classical composers. RW is flawless in every sense, IMO.
Dan: I’ll take that as an answer to a later question.
J.R.: Mahavishnu wasn’t quite as complete. They always had a piece or two that wasn’t quite ‘finished’. As crazy as that may sound.
Dan: No, I get what you mean.
J.R.: My friend is a big McLaughlin fan and plays a lot like him. In fact, I’m trying to find a way to get him to play on our next CD. He didn’t like when I told him that Mahavishnu was incomplete, but I feel that their recordings are a bit too raw. Raw is very cool, but not when the recordings comes across as incomplete. A lot like EL&P albums. They always had a tune or two that didn’t fit in with the rest of the work.
Dan: That’s one of my big problems with ELP.
J.R.: Me too! And they are probably my biggest influence, but I’m aware of their weaknesses.
Dan: Honestly I don’t listen to ELP very much though. Or Yes or Genesis.
J.R.: Yeah, it all depends on what your emotions allow, or tolerate, I suppose. Music has to connect with us on an emotional level, otherwise it’s not going to work. Interesting, because you said you like a lot of keys when you reviewed my CD, yet the music you listen to doesn’t contain much keyboard. Could it be that you’re turning the corner?
Dan: Actually most of the music I listen to DOES contain a lot of keyboards. The Tangent, Beardfish, RtF are all very keyboard-oriented.
J.R.: True, true. And of course the Italian Prog.
Dan: VDGG only moderately, and JT not very much at all (except for the excellent work by John Evans on Thick as a Brick). But yeah, Italian Prog, Swedish Prog, Canterbury Scene.
J.R.: I guess I got hung up on VDGG.
Dan: All heavily keyboard-oriented.
J.R.: I really dig VDGG, and am now thinking about their music.
Dan: I’m constantly thinking of VDGG lyrics. My favorite song is probably Meurglys III.
J.R.: Oh yeah!
Dan: World Record isn’t my favorite album though. Pawn Hearts, probably.
J.R.: Yes, that’s a classic.
Dan: I believe they’re recording a new one right now. Can’t wait to see how that goes. Speaking of keyboards, let’s go back to Arjen for a moment. Do you agree with his view that the Hammond is the greatest musical instrument known to man?
J.R.: Well, you’re talking with a guy who made his mind up to go to music lessons once he heard a Hammond B3 played by Gregg Rolie, on Santana Abraxas.
Dan: Sure am!
J.R.: I’m not an unbiased source, for sure!
Dan: No one is an unbiased source.
J.R.: Correct! I will say this: If I had only ONE instrument to take with me and no other, it may very well be the B3. When I read that Arjen said that, I said: “Right on!!” However, it’d be difficult to pass up on a Steinway grand
Dan: Or a synthesizer that can mimick it?
J.R.: Sure… That’s actually what I have. My Korg Triton and Trinity do a pretty good job of that. It’s simply impossibly for me to own a ‘real’ B3 because of the size of the thing… It’d take up most of my studio space. Arjen has a bit more space… I think he turned his garage into a studio, or something like that. it was a large space. Larger than what I have available to me. Oh yeah… Purists will argue, but in a mix, it’s difficult to tell the difference.
Dan: I’m sure most bands could go through their entire careers without seeing as many instruments as Arjen does during the course of recording one album.
J.R.: He has the talent and the funds, evidently, to pull it off. And more power to him. He’s doing a great job managing all of those projects. How does he keep count?
Dan: It seems like he takes his time.
J.R.: He does, but I think he has a ‘formula’… And I’m not saying that in any negative way, on the contrary. He’s got a way of working whereby his music sounds similar with every project/release, but not exactly the same. Does that make sense?
Dan: Well, someone like him, with all his grand schemes, would have to.
J.R.: Absolutely! It’s all good. You have to have a “style”, otherwise it’s nor your signature on the art work. Funny we’re talking about this since my son always gets a kick about how our music will start off by being a simple drum/bass or drum/guitar piece that may sound more along the lines of Rush. Then, when it gets done all remnants of the original guitars are lost and the keys dominate. It’s our style, for good, or bad.
Dan: Hehe. Well, all glory to the keyboards.
J.R.: It’s hard to describe when I consider a piece to be “done”, but it’s usually done when the keys have the last say.
Dan: Ok, time for Corea! I’m actually listening to Song to the Pharaoh Kings as I write this. That’s my favorite track from my favorite Return to Forever album. I believe you said before that Romantic Warrior is your favorite RTF album, is that the case? How would you rank the others? While we’re on this subject, what are your favorite Di Meola and Corea solo albums as well? I’d say Casino and My Spanish Heart for me, respectively.
J.R.: I like the “polished” sound of Warrior most. Chick’s keys on that album, IMO, is the best keyboard work in any prog recording, outside of Tarkus. What Chick does on Warrior is truly inspirational and no one has come close to duplicating it. Of course, it’s all opinion… Some will say that Rudess has surpassed Chick and Emerson, but that’s just some young guys talking. Jordan himself will probably tell you that Corea is THE MAN… and, of course, Emo! I actually like the first RTF records more than the ones right before Warrior. The ones with Flora and Airto are very organic and have a floating quality that I’ve yet to hear since then.
Dan: I love the first two albums, but they have a very major flaw. And that flaw is VOCALS! In jazz! Yes, she’s a nice singer, but it still bothers me.
J.R.: haha! You and vocals!
Dan: It isn’t as bad as Gayle on Musicmagic though.
J.R.: There is a “tender” sound to Flora’s voice that fits perfectly with the early RTF sound. I went through a trip of about a decade where I only listened to jazz… In fact, it was right after I graduated H.S. Right through the 80’s decade the only rock I listened to was Rush.
Dan: Decidedly unjazzy. I sometimes go into fits of Rush obsession, and then get bored of them until the next one comes along. But I only listen to 2112 – Moving Pictures, nothing else!
J.R.: I actually saw the 2112 tour in Madison Square Garden…it was my second concert. That will certainly date me
Dan: I would have liked to have been alive for the Moving Pictures tour.
J.R.: Saw the MP tour at Radio City Music Hall… And I walked out during the encore, was way too loud!
Dan: I am disappointed! Haha!
J.R.: It was WAY TOO LOUD!!!
Dan: I suppose Geddy’s voice was very screechy back then.
J.R.: And I was jamming with some VERY LOUD band during that time… But Rush was painfully loud… I couldn’t take Alex’s solos after a while. No, Geddy was GREAT, he wasn’t the problem.
Dan: You never told me your favorite Di Meola and Corea solo albums.
J.R.: Corea: Now He Sings Now He Sobs.
Dan: Well, I should have expected that.
J.R.: Yeah, that’s a masterpiece of the highest order… Jazz piano doesn’t get much better than that. Di Meola: Elegant Gypsy.
Dan: Certainly. My second favorite.
J.R.: I know, Elegant Gypsy is obvious, but it has a special place in my heart… I was listening to that a lot and learning the Hammer parts when I met my wife. That record blew me away… It still does… In fact, it’s on my son’s iPod as we speak… He’s probably listening to it.
Dan: I chuckled at the prospect of listening to a Di Meola album for the keyboards. But I kid, Jan Hammer is amazing.
J.R.: Emerson/Tarkus did some long-lasting damage to me! … Keep in mind, that most everything, outside of the sustained solos that Al is playing on Gypsy, Jan is duplicating on his keys. That’s how Al got that thick, doubling, staccato stuff to come across so percussively… He doubled it up with the keys. You can hear that clearly on ‘Race’ and on the title track.
Dan: It’s hard to imagine that so much talent can be crammed into that little album.
J.R.: There’s a reason why Al picked Jan time and time and time again to play on his records. The cat can flat-out shred!
Dan: And it’s difficult to find someone who can keep up with Al.
J.R.: Jan did it with Beck, he did it with McLaughlin and with Di Meola… He kept up with the very best. He’s very inspiring, but he’s not very lyrical… It’s mostly grooves and shredding. For lyrical you have to go Lyle Mays, from the PMG.
J.R.: It’s interesting, isn’t it? Each player has his style.
Dan: Yeah. Speaking of which… Despite your love of jazz, there is surprisingly little of it in Novus Rex. Why do you think this is? Can we expect some jazzy moments on future releases?
J.R.: I LOVE jazz, but I’d have to find a jazz drummer and it’s difficult enough trying to find a prog drummer. I dig jazz just as much as prog, and sometimes much more, but it’s not my vision nor what I feel. The music I hear in my head and in my heart is theme-based, much like what Plowshares offers… And what we’re currently working on is once again, theme-based. If you notice I don’t go solo-crazy on the album… It’s more thematic and I weave short solos around those themes. Jazz, on the other hand, would have to be much more improvised and full of solos and that’s something I don’t feel… At least for recording. I improvise when I practice or jam with others, but not in my writing.
Dan: Speaking of future releases, you mentioned to me before that you were listening to some new recordings Novus Rex had made, and you’ve been telling me stuff about what’s going on the new album throughout this interview. Tell us more about this.
J.R.: When you contacted me earlier I was listening to and mixing some of our new music. It’s certainly along the lines of what we’ve done in Plowshares. Although we are adding much more acoustic guitar. A.I. is really getting into Floyd and Camel… Especially the latter and has written some cool progressions that will lend themselves well to acoustic guitars. Specially 12 string acoustic. He has a VERY clear musical vision. Being younger he has a clearer head than his dad. He can come up with entire song structures in a matter of minutes. Where I would take days to get the same thing done. It’s working our real well. We’re really happy about the progress we’re making. Our first piece is not yet finished and it’s clocking in at 10 minutes thus far; so it’s going to be longer than what we’ve done on Plowshares. Who knows, maybe we’ll write an epic of sorts!
Dan: I like the sound of this a lot. When do you think you might be done?
J.R.: Not this year, for sure. I’m hoping for spring 2011. I take a long time to arrange the pieces… That’s where I spend the bulk of my writing. Orchestration and arrangement are very important to me and why I like Arjen’s work. He’s a master arranger. Although we’re setting a rule for this record… Keep each piece under 35-40 tracks! I’d like to shoot for 15-20, but that’s unrealistic in this day and age, unless you’re doing minimal instrumentation. Imagine the old way of doing it… Tracks on a tape… Four track = a recording head with four separate recording areas that can record on four tracks. With computers… NO LIMIT TO TRACKS!!!!! Now you see the problem?
Dan: It gets too complicated?
J.R.: Quincy Jones said it best: “Recording with computers is like painting a 747 with a tooth brush” or something along those lines. You’re never done, was the point he was trying to make. That’s something we want to avoid on this record.
Dan: Then again, with the tiny brush size, you have more ability to paint smaller details than if you were using a hose!
J.R.: Exactly!!! That’s what Quincy was saying. If you listen to those Michael Jackson records, there’s a LOT going on in the mix. It’s crazy how many tracks they used.
Dan: I would hate to look at Arjen’s computer.
J.R.: Oh yeah! Arjen runs LOTS of tracks! … Alan Morse was asked by either you or Nick, why had SB taken so long to produce their latest record… He said it takes a long time to get it right.
Dan: That would be Nick, he’s the SB fan.
J.R.: Keep in mind, those are FOUR guys with a nice budget, certainly larger than ours and they’re taking a long time between records. At the pace we’re going it’ll probably be in the Springs of 2011. I like what A.I. is doing with the guitars. He’s going somewhat retro…some wah and old-school tones… It ought to be fun. No metal sounds, thus far, but I’m sure he’ll want to throw them in sooner or later… Kids!
Dan: Well, there’s no problem with throwing bits of random stuff around, as far as I’m concerned.
J.R.: No, and I think we’ve done than on the first CD.
Dan: One of my favorite bands, Beardfish, relies heavily on the Swedish prog tradition of light and happy sounding Hammond-driven rock, but on their last album they did a track that sounded like it could have been done by Opeth.
J.R.: Yes, they’re excellent. Do you like the Flower Kings?
Dan: I used to, but I got bored with them after a while.
J.R.: Really? A bit too soft?
Dan: Yeah, surprisingly. I suppose. I really don’t know what it is. Too pretty? Hehe.
J.R.: Yeah… They are pretty, that’s true. I rather use the term ‘elegant’. Like Weather Report, they are necessary in an age when all things are METAL. The Flower Kings balance out the landscape… I’m glad they are around. I listen to them more often than most anything else ‘prog’ these days. I find their music very deep and satisfying.
Dan: Well that’s why I like The Tangent and Beardfish. The Tangent is almost like what would happen if Peter Hammill and Dave Stewart of Hatfield and the North formed a band together.
J.R.: Interesting point. You’re probably very tired. Sorry for starting so late.
Dan: The Tangent (sort of) started off as a Flower Kings side project (though Roine and Jonas never contributed material), so I guess that’s relevant. Not tired at all. 1:30? Pfft…
J.R.: Not too familiar with the side projects… It’s difficult enough keeping up with the Flower Kings discography… Interestingly, as much as I like the Flower Kings their music doesn’t necessarily ‘inspire’ me. I don’t hear my music in theirs.
Dan: Though Roine and Jonas played on the albums, it isn’t really a TFK side project. It’s more of a main project of Andy Tillison’s.
J.R.: Arjen’s music inspires me to write… When I hear his work, I hear my own.
Dan: Tell me about the song Belteshazzar’s Dream, which, as I mentioned in the review, is my favorite track on the album. After doing a little research I found out that it’s a reference to Daniel, the biblical character who was given the above name as an honorary title for his service to Nebuchadnezzar. But I’ll shut up now, would you mind telling the rest?
J.R.: Yes, you got it right!
Dan: Wikipedia never fails!
J.R.: That piece has a special place with me because of what I was trying to do with it. The book of Daniel is so accurate in its prophecy that most “scholars” and critics will say it was written AFTER the events occurred. Most of what Daniel wrote came via dreams and visions that were given to him by God. When he wrote his book/prophecies he was in Babylon, during Nebuchadnezzar’s reign… So, the setting, the characters and of course, the prophecy, were all very VISUAL and VIVID for me and the piece tries to portray that. I tried to give it a middle eastern feel, but didn’t want to go as far as adding samples of instruments from that part of the world.
Dan: I would say you succeeded.
J.R.: You think? That’s good to know!
Dan: Yeah, I could hear what you were going for while I listened to it.
J.R.: Yeah, that piece took the longest of all to create. It was a labor of love. I dissected each part and made sure it had a kind of movie soundtrack quality to it. That it painted pictures with each theme. Anthony Davis, our deceased friend, is singing on that piece. No words, but just high pitched notes… You can hear it alongside the synths.
Dan: Right, I was going to ask you about him next.
Dan: I tried to research who he is, but I couldn’t find anything. Would you care to tell me?
J.R.: Anthony was a drummer and vocalist… And song writer. He played on several “hair bands”, mostly during the 80s and toured with several big names… He played with a band that toured with, of all people, Ted Nuggent. He played with a band named Jettison Eddy that was relatively successful in the Southwestern USA. I met Anthony through mutual friends and right off the bat we started talking about music, and next thing you know, we’re writing and recording. He was very cerebral… very, very smart. And a great guy. However… He was also very sick, and it’s part of the reason why it took so long to get the CD finished. I would record a bit here and there, then he’d be sick for a month. That’s when I started to take the role of drummer. It was a difficult time for us and we lost a dear friend.
Dan: Well, I’m sorry to hear that. How about Scott Rockenfield? Apparently he’s the drummer of Queensryche.
J.R.: Yes, that came toward the end of the record. We had to get it finished. There wasn’t any deadline from a record label or anything like that since we’re completely indie… But I wanted to get it done! It was taking too long. There was too much material completed and much more semi-finished and I couldn’t possibly do the drumming for all of it, so I started networking and met a producer based in Seattle that had some drum tracks he’d done with Scott a few years back. I listened to them and found them to be useful for what we were doing. Of course, it was a nightmare matching what we’d already done with Scott’s pre-recorded drums, but it worked out, I think?!
Dan: I’ll be honest, I never usually even notice drums.
J.R.: Haha! Funny you should say that… I write, arrange and mix our music so the drums are heard as “complementary” to the music, rather than what’s driving it.
Dan: In fact, the only drummers I’d say I actually notice are Billy Cobham and Lenny White.
J.R.: Well, those guys are impossible to ignore! But I know EXACTLY what you’re saying. So that’s how the Scott Rockenfield deal happened… I never met the man, but some of his drums adorn our music.
Dan: Hehe. One last serious question. You keep telling me about how long the album took to record. How long exactly?
J.R.: In retrospect… A LOT of what you hear on Plowshares was conceived on an acoustic piano; a Kawai upright that sits in our living room. I can honestly say that I’ve been working on the music for the past 10-12 years. A theme here, another one there… a bridge here… another theme there, etc. Some of it was penned into a note book in very cryptic music notation… some real notation, some homegrown. What held up the album was getting the recording space ready… that took… hmmm… Four years. Once I had the studio, then recording was relatively easy to do. The ordeal with Anthony’s health was probably what took the most time away from getting it done. During those 10-12 years I probably conceived enough parts to create four CDs. That’s what I’m shooting for… FOUR albums. This is not to say that I want to stop after that… No. Not at all, but for the style of music I’m currently doing, I see three more CDs. I already have the ideas… It’s just a matter of getting it done!
Dan: I think you said you’ve been reading the interviews on the website, so you must have noticed I ask all of the people I interview if they like dogs. Well, do you?
J.R.: Sure! I have a chocolate lab. He rules!
Dan: Yay! Let me get a picture of Fudge, my dog. I took this picture earlier in the evening. http://hphotos-snc3.fbcdn.net/hs296.snc3/28457_442706398528_601098528_5800459_3133343_n.jpg We think he’s a cross between a lab and a springer spaniel.
J.R.: Very cool! Very friendly looking guy!
Dan: He’s the friendliest dog ever!
J.R.: I can tell by the look in his eyes that he’s friendly. My Bruno is also very friendly. He usually sits with me in my studio… Chills out and puts out a good vibe. He’s the assistant producer on the project ;-}
Dan: Do you have anything more you’d like to add before we finish? I’m out of questions.
J.R.: No, but the interview was great, thanks a lot!
Dan: Well thank you for allowing me to do the interview.
J.R.: You’re very welcome!
Dan: And be sure to let me know when the new album comes out!
J.R.: Of course!