TELERGY: Removing Barriers

Robert McClung

Hampton, New Hampshire-based progressive rock project by songwriter and producer Robert McClung, Telergy returns five years after the release of “Hypatia.” The new release entitled “Black Swallow” is another concept album which, this time, tells the story of Eugene Bullard, was the first African-American military pilot. McClung spoke for Prog Sphere about “Black Swallow,” the guest appearances by a number of musicians including current and former members of Styx, Kansas, King Crimson, Testament, Marillion, and more. The album is available for pre-order as a part of the ongoing Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign.

Black Swallow comes forth at the time when we once again question the basic human rights. Can you please expand on how it serves as a tribute to where we are at the moment?

I started working on this album long before the current surge in attention towards human rights. My only goal at the time was to bring Eugene Bullard’s story to a wider audience and give him the focus he truly deserves as a great hero. I think it’s incredibly fitting that the album comes out during such a time. People are becoming more aware and more accepting. They are learning details of the past that have been hidden for generations. I hope this album can play a small part in opening minds and bring us closer to a society where we are all truly equal. Which was the goal that Eugene fought for his entire life. A very perfect tribute indeed.

What inspired you in the first place to dedicate this album and the story to Eugene Bullard? What ideas did inform the album in particular?

My inspiration came from reading his story. I was simply astounded that this incredible man existed, but was never mentioned in history books. I knew I had to use Telergy as a platform to bring his story into the light where more people could learn about him. The various aspects of his story, just like all the other stories Telergy has told, forced me to bring in certain musical elements to make the music relevant to the story. This can sometimes be quite a challenge. For this particular album I knew I had to incorporate elements of blues, jazz and military music into the progressive rock/metal framework that Telergy is built upon. I enjoy the challenge of learning new things with every album.

Black Swallow continues Telergy’s tradition to involve a large number of guest musicians who contributed, including names such Todd Sucherman (Styx), David Ragsdale (Kansas), Tony Levin (King Crimson), Steve DiGiorgio (Testament), Pete Trewavas (Marillion), to name but a few. How do you go about making decisions about who could fit your musical vision and inviting them to contribute?

As I’m composing, I often imagine what a certain part would sound like with a certain artist performing it. From there it’s just a matter of connecting with them to see if they want to participate. Since I make no profit from my work and donate everything to charity, most artists are very open to working with me. I’ve also had the time to build a reputation that often proceeds me. When I reach out to artists now, they are often already familiar with Telergy and admire what I do.

Telergy - Black Swallow

Tell me about the challenges you faced this time and how did you go about overcoming them. 

The biggest challenges involved scheduling and logistics. Some artists had very busy schedules. Forcing me to sometimes wait for months before I could get their tracks or get them into my studio to record. Other artists that live far from me didn’t have home studios, which required me to arrange a studio for them to do their parts in, in whatever area they lived in. There was one group of artists who were coming through my area in Boston for a show for only one night. They had a narrow window of just a couple hours to record. So, I rented time at a studio near the venue where they were performing, I picked them up off their tour bus and ran them over to the studio, they laid down incredible tracks at lightning speed, then I ran them back to the venue for the show. Another artist was unable to get out to a studio at all. Which required me to bring a mobile recording set up to their house. I also faced the challenge of a failing computer near the end of the process. Thank goodness I’m particular about backing things up on multiple hard drives!

Speaking of challenges, how much it is about the challenge at this point of your career? How much the challenge means to you in terms of creativity? 

Psychologist Edwin Locke theorized that setting high goals is a key motivational factor for many people. Which I guess is truly the case with me. I always strive for something bigger and more intense that what I’ve done before. If I didn’t, I probably would have little interest in doing it at all. I’ve been lucky to devise a framework with Telergy that is always pushing me beyond my boundaries. Which in turn fuels my creativity.

Provide some insight into your own creative process. How has your perspective on the possibilities of song arrangement expanded over the years? 

In the past I was often limited by technical boundaries and lack of personnel. As each of those boundaries has lifted, I have found more and more pathways to explore. There was actually a brief time long ago when I almost gave up music entirely because I felt so limited in what I was capable of. But once I built my own studio things changed quickly. The possibilities just kept expanding beyond my wildest dreams. As for my process, it all starts with the story. I lay out a kind of musical storyboard to figure out what kinds of musical parts will best suit the different chapters in the story. The intention of each scene is to musically relay what the actions and emotions of the characters are at that moment. Are they angry, sad, scared, lovestruck, etc.? My goal in arrangement is to best relate those feelings to the listener.

Black Swallow is Telergy’s fourth studio album. How do you feel you’ve evolved as a musician and songwriter across those recordings?

I’ve gotten far better at the production aspect of music. In the beginning I was very new and still learning the basics. I can hear big differences and improvement in that area with each album. As a musician each album forces me to learn new styles, playing techniques and composition elements. I grow as I create. Something I hope to be able to do for a long time to come.

Your music is far from being obvious and it certainly isn’t easy, and also requires significant effort to bring to fruition. Given the difficult economics of the world of music today, how do you make such ambitious projects a reality? 

I have no interest in economics. I just want to make great art. I’m not rich, but I’m fortunate to have a stable income that allows me to focus on my art without any concern of it being profitable or not. People outside of the genre often ask me why I would put so much time, energy and money into something so grandiose that many average listeners can’t even understand, and has zero chance of being profitable. The answer is simple, it’s what I like! I’m not making music to please the masses, get the most attention or make money. I’m making the music that excites and engages my own tastes first and foremost. If that happens to be beyond the realm of most listeners, that’s fine. I understand. Luckily fans within the progressive rock genre are very accepting of big concepts. The fan base may be small, but they are dedicated and hungry for things that are new and different. I’m just flattered that anyone likes what I do at all.

We are living in incredibly challenging times. What role do artists have in attempting to restore the balance that other parts of society are disrupting?

I think the key thing that artists contribute to society is communication. Far too often, people just don’t listen to one another. The arts opens up a door to communication that nothing else can. A person might have a certain opinion about something, but then hear a song, watch a play, see a painting or read a book that makes them totally change their minds and see things in a new way. The artists role is to keep the conversation going. Because if it stops, we retreat into our own little corners and nothing ever changes. When people of totally different opinions or backgrounds can stand next to each other at a concert and sing along together, barriers come down, and we start looking at each other as fellow humans again. Rather than bitter rivals.
Pre-order Black Swallow here. For more information visit Telergy’s website.

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