Category Archives: Interviews

Interview with Jazz Fusion Sensation Antoine Fafard

Antoine Fafard - Photo by Zuzana Carroll
Antoine Fafard – Photo by Zuzana Carroll
Virtuoso bassist and composer Antoine Fafard has recently released Occultus Tramitis, an impressive fusion album that features some of the finest musicians in the current fusion and jazz-rock scene.

Antoine Fafard was born in Montreal (Canada) and now lives in the UK. In addition to his solo career, Fafard composes music for television and performs as a session bass player.

During the late 1990s, Antoine Fafard led a renowned Canadian fusion band called Spaced Out. The band released five studio albums: Spaced Out (2000), Eponymus II (2001), Slow Gin (2003), Unstable Matter (2006), Evolution (2008); one live album, Live at the Crescendo Festival (2007); and two DVDs: Live in 2000 (2005) and Live at the Crescendo Festival (2007).

Antoine Fafard’s first solo album, Solus Operandi, was released in August 2011.

Antoine Fafard reveals details about this latest project, Occultus Tramitis (2013), to Progressive Rock Central.

Antoine Fafard - Occultus Tramitis
Antoine Fafard – Occultus Tramitis
On Occultus Tramitis you feature an impressive lineup of renowned international fusion musicians. How did you connect with all the guests?

I simply connected with them via emails… it was pretty straightforward. I sometimes had to be patient as the musician I contacted was on tour or busy with other projects. In the case of Scott Henderson and Simon Phillips, the initial contact had been made a while back, but it took some time before the sessions actually happened. It was of course an honor to be able to have all those great musicians playing my music.

Was there long distance recording?

Yes… I can confirm that all the collaborators on this album where based in a different location to where I was based.

Electric violinist Jerry Goodman seems to be in great shape. Will you be collaborating with him again?

Jerry is a fantastic player and I definitely want to collaborate with him again in the future. He simply elevated my music to another level. It was a real privilege to have him on my album.

If you could gather any musicians or musical groups to collaborate with whom would that be?

I have a long list of musicians I want to collaborate with in the future, and Vinnie Colaiuta and Allan Holdsworth are on top of this list.

Your two solo albums have titles in Latin. Why Latin?

Because I think it’s a language has a nice tone to it… Latin is the root for most of the European languages, and I associate it to something universal and timeless.

Tell us about your musical background.

I started to play piano at the age of 9 and switched to the classical guitar at 11. I then started the electric bass at 15 and soon after studied music in College/University. Growing up my older brother who is a drummer introduced me to a wide range of music. I’ve always transcribed music and been attracted to composition.

What bass types and models do you use? How many do you have?

Antoine Fafard - Photo by Zuzana Carroll
Antoine Fafard – Photo by Zuzana Carroll
I have a 6 string fretted and a 6 string fretless custom made Sei Bass. These instruments were made by Martin Peterson in London.

Who are your favorite bass players?

Jaco Pastorius and Victor Wooten are probably on top of the list for me… but there are also many more great bass players I admire!

How’s the Canadian fusion music scene?

I’m not sure how active it is… it never seemed very alive to me. I can say the same thing for London.

Where are you based now?

I’ve been based in London for now more than 10 years.

What music are you currently listening to?

I’m generally very open minded… but at the moment, I listen to a lot of Allan Holdsworth.

What new projects are you working on?

I’m currently composing some new music in collaboration with Canadian guitarist Jerry De Villiers Jr. I’m also rehearsing with my trio and will soon perform a few gigs in the London area.

Buy Occultus Tramitis in North America

Buy Occultus Tramitis in Europe

Interview with English Progressive Music Artist Tim Bowness

Tim Bowness and Steven Wilson
Tim Bowness and Steven Wilson
English vocalist, guitarist, songwriter and entrepreneur Tim Bowness is the focus of our interview. His band Henry Fool released Men Singing, one of the finest progressive rock albums of 2013. Tim Bowness was born November 29, 1963 and is better known as one of the founders of No-Man, a music project started in 1987 with Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson.

Tim has released several studio albums and a documentary DVD with No-Man. He also worked with Robert Fripp, Hugh Hopper (Soft Machine), OSI and Roger Eno, and popular Italian artist Alice, amongst many others. He is currently in the band Memories Of Machines, and the Anglo-Estonian ensemble Slow Electric.

Tim also recorded the album Flame with Richard Barbieri (Porcupine Tree/ex-Japan) and co-produced and co-wrote the acclaimed Talking With Strangers (2009) for Judy Dyble (ex Fairport Convention).

In 2001, he created an online record label and store called Burning Shed along with Peter Chilvers and Pete Morga. Tim has also been involved in various other projects that are of interest to our readers.

Henry Fool - Men Singing</a
Henry Fool – Men Singing
The new Henry Fool album, Men Singing, came out earlier this year. The band features members who play in various other projects. How did you put this album together?

We’ve written about five album’s worth of material between 2001 and 2013. The difficulty has been making coherent albums out of what is a pretty diverse body of work.

Men Singing began in 2006 when we went into the studio for a weekend of recording various things live straight to tape. We produced several hours worth of music, which took us years to edit down into usable chunks (partly, because we were all so daunted by the task!). It was completed in late 2012 with further edits and overdubs from Jarrod Gosling and Phil Manzanera.

Tell us a little about the musicians involved in Men Singing.

In various line-ups, most of us have worked with one another for years. Michael Bearpark, Peter Chilvers. Andrew Booker and me have known each other since the early 1990s (though I’ve worked with Michael since 1985). I met Stephen Bennett in 2000 and we immediately got on well, so making music together became an inevitably.

Michael, Stephen and Andrew are also in the No-Man live band. Peter is someone I’ve worked with on various projects (Slow Electric, Samuel Smiles). Jarrod is in an electronic band I Monster who had a huge ‘trip-hop’ hit in Europe in 2002. Phil Manzanera is very well known for his work with Roxy Music, Robert Wyatt, 801, David Gilmour and many others.

Jarrod Gosling got in touch with me last year regarding his band Regal Worm. I liked his music a lot and accepted an invitation from him to sing on his new album. In return, I asked him to contribute to Men Singing.

Phil Manzanera, who I’ve been dealing with via Burning Shed, got involved very late on, but added some really nice guitar parts which subtly enhanced what was already there.

How would you describe the music in Men Singing?

Once completed, it sounded a little like we’d accidentally reinvented Jazz Rock!

The truth is that with the material on Men Singing we just went in and recorded music live in the studio with no preconceptions.

I guess the result has elements of 1960s/1970s Jazz Rock, Psychedelia, Progressive and Minimalist Classical music, but I think it’s filtered through the band member’s personalities and the forty years or so that have elapsed since the recognised heyday of some of aforementioned genres.

I noticed that the length of tracks in this album is considerable longer than the pieces on your previous recording. How did the band and its sound evolve?

Henry Fool debut album
Henry Fool debut album
On the first Henry Fool album, I’d take in an idea and the band would play it well and with character, but rarely deviate from the original riffs, rhythms or chords. As a consequence, the instrumentals were short.

With the new material the band took ideas I had into areas I couldn’t on my own. They also played a lot more with dynamic possibilities and mood. It was a real collective effort. Men Singing’s 14 minute tracks started off as 30 minute pieces, so there was a lot of editing done.

I hope that the album’s got a nice balance between live performance energy and post-production hindsight.

The songs Stephen Bennett and I have written since the first album are also more complex musically and more detailed in terms of sound. It’s partly come out of a desire to stretch ourselves, but it’s all come out naturally.

Your previous album was released in 2001. It’s taken 12 years for a new album. Why did it take so long?

There are three reasons mainly. The first is that we’ve all been involved with other projects (most of the Henry Fool band play live with No-Man, for example). The second is that although we’ve done a lot of writing over the years, for various reasons, we never found the right way to structure and release what had become a very diverse collection of material. The third and maybe most crucial reason was that we recorded so much music, it took months make our way through the files and edit the music down.

A fourth reason is that I’ve always felt that music like this works well in the classic 40 minute album format, so we took a lot of time over getting the sequencing and dynamics the way we wanted them to be.

Jarrod Gosling’s artwork, which came very late on in the process, was something that I also felt tied everything together nicely.

Is Henry Fool a studio collaboration or is there also a live version of the band?

We’re hoping to play live this year. We’ve been invited to play at the Kscope label 5th anniversary concert in July. Who’ll be on stage? I’m not sure!

Although you are described as singer-songwriter in some biographies, you play guitar in Henry Fool which is essential an instrumental music project. How was this experience without vocals?

Very enjoyable. By its very nature, my voice tends to dominate what I sing on in terms of mood and style. When I write on the guitar for No-Man, it’s in an unobtrusive songwriting way, whereas with Henry Fool I often write sequences that wouldn’t work as songs

I’m a more accomplished and confident singer than I am a guitarist, but it’s easier to be more flexible and more a part of a collective experience as a guitarist.

I think I’m a more original singer than I am a guitarist, but for better or worse, I feel more of a sense of surprise at what comes out of my guitar playing.

Judy Dyble - Talking with Strangers
Judy Dyble – Talking with Strangers
Your name and vocals appear in a new album by English progressive folk singer Judy Dyble. Tell us a little more about this project.

Judy asked me to produce an album for her in 2008. As I was busy with No-Man at the time, I asked Alistair Murphy to help out.

We co-wrote most of the material with Judy and produced the album for her. The opening piece Neverknowing and the 20 minute epic Harpsong were musically wholly written by Alistair and I, and I heavily re-wrote Judy’s lyrics to fit my melodies. In other words, it was a major collaborative project.

It was a lovely experience and I’m very proud of the album. Judy’s voice was as sweet as it ever was and it was great working with the likes of Folk royalty, Simon Nicol and Jacqui McShee.

One of your best known aspects is as member of British band No-Man. Are you currently working on any No-Man projects?

Yes. We did a European tour last year, which was really enjoyable and energising and I’ve recently been in the studio with the No-Man live band and we’ve already recorded about half an hour’s worth of new music which will hopefully be considered for inclusion on whatever Steven and I come up with next for No-Man.

You are also involved in a business called Burning Shed? It’s been described as an online label and music store. What kind of music do you work with?

We’re an active label releasing albums by Daniel Cavanagh (Anathema), Lo-Fi Resistance, Hugh Hopper, Steve Jansen, Nick Beggs and others, and we also run the official online stores for Porcupine Tree, No-Man, Kscope records, Panegyric/King Crimson, Thomas Dolby, Jethro Tull and more.

Who can you cite as your main musical influences?

I think influences and what you like and listen to (inspirations?) can often be different things, although they can sometimes be the same thing.

For example, Joni Mitchell and John Coltrane are two of my favourite artists of all time, but I don’t hear any of their influence on what I do. Peter Gabriel, Kevin Godley and Paul Buchanan are three of my favourite singers, but I sound nothing like them.

I also really like artists such as John Martyn, Rickie Lee Jones, Steely Dan, Can, The Flaming Lips, Lonnie Liston Smith, Kevin Coyne, Mercury Rev, Randy Newman, Beach Boys, Frank Zappa, Yes, Talking Heads, The Beatles and Lindsey Buckingham who I don’t think have much (if any) bearing on my own music.

On the other hand, bands like U2 and The Doors aren’t particular favourites of mine, yet I can hear their influence in what I do.

People who I’d consider both inspirations and influences would be Nick Drake, Peter Hammill, Steve Reich, Tim Buckley, David Bowie, Talk Talk, Robert Fripp, Miles Davis, Sigur Ros, Pink Floyd, John Barry, Philip Glass, Scott Walker, Rain Tree Crow, Mark Eitzel/American Music Club and Kate Bush.

How does the composition process work?

In whatever way serves the final result. Ideas can come from anyone, anywhere and at anytime.

With No-Man, for example, I can bring in a complete song that Steven develops, Steven can give me an instrumental I write lyrics and a melody for, or we can write together in the studio.

If you could gather any musicians or musical groups to collaborate with whom would that be?

I’m lucky enough to have worked with some people whose music I loved when I was growing up – Robert Fripp, Peter Hammill, Phil Manzanera, Dave Stewart, Bruce Kaphan, Ian Carr and so on – and it’s still a thrill to think that I’ve worked with these people. That said, there are always musicians I’d like to work with.

Eberhard Weber, Philip Glass, Stephen Drozd, Jon Christensen, Brian Eno, Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell, Vudi, Brian Blade, John Cale, David Bowie, Peter Gabriel and many more people I’ll probably never even meet would be on my fantasy list.

It would also be really exciting to work on full collaborative projects with people I’ve already dealt with like Phil Manzanera, Robert Fripp and Peter Hammill.

What guitar types and models are you playing now?

I have a Line 6 Variax and a PRS SE EG, which I usually process through a Line 6 Pod 2.0 or a Line 6 PodFarm.

What music are you currently listening to?

I listen to a lot of music a lot of the time and my passions vary massively.

At the moment, I’m going through a phase of listening to early 1970s and very recent British Jazz such as Mike Westbrook, Michael Gibbs, Troyka, Dave Stapleton and others. I’m also listening to new albums by The Flaming Lips, Mark Kozelek, David Bowie and Todd Rundgren.

What do you like to do during your free time?

Between making music,being involved with Burning Shed and having a two year old child, free time is scarce. I try and keep up my interest in music, films and literature, which leaves little time for much else.

What country would you like to visit?

Too many to mention! Out of the countries I’ve visited, I retain a fascination for the US. Partly because of its vastness and its phenomenal diversity of landscape and culture. I’m also very fond of Greek islands such as Skopelos and Ithaka, which have a real sense of calm and provide an ideal escape from the modern world. The ancient medinas I’ve visited in Morocco are fascinating in an altogether more frantic way.

When gigging abroad, former Eastern Bloc countries such as Poland, Estonia and Kiev have been great to visit due to the enthusiasm of the audiences.

What other musical projects are you involved with?

Slow Electric – A collaboration with Peter Chilvers and two Estonian Jazz musicians. We’re working on a second album, which features Porcupine Tree’s Colin Edwin on bass and as a co-writer.

Postcards From Space – A project with Alistair Murphy featuring Pat Mastelotto on drums and Steve Bingham on violin.

I’ve also written a couple of songs with James Matheos from Fates Warning/OSI and co-written some acoustic songs with White Willow’s Jacob and Andrew Keeling.

Selected discography:

With Henry Fool

With no-man – Studio Albums

no-man Compilations / Other

Solo albums & collaborations


Interview with Menno Gootjes of Dutch Band Focus

current Focus lineup
current Focus lineup
Pioneering Dutch progressive band Focus has a new album titled X. The band’s guitarist, Menno Gootjes, discusses the new recording with progressive rock Central.

Who composed the music on Focus X?

X is a true Focus album in the sense that it’s got long, epic symphonic pieces as well as shorter, upbeat rock-tunes. The material sounds fresh and inspired, partly due to the fact that we’ve been touring a lot with this line-up during the whole production process.

The new line-up fits very well because our personalities are equally strong enough to inspire each other, or challenge each other. It keeps the fire lit, and X reflects that. Plus we’re simply having a great time making music with each other! Soundwise it goes back to a classic set up, in Focus terms. You know, the Les Paul with the Hammond, Drums and Bass and some acoustic guitars.

X by Focus
X by Focus
The first difference with the former 2 albums is off course the guitar players, different ones on every one of them. The production has improved. On X, for the first time in years, Focus sounds like a real band again where all the players blend well sound- AND personality-wise. A lot of it is improvised or recorded on the spot. Plus there’s writing contributions from everybody as well.

Thijs is still the main composer, he’s always got a lot of new music lying around. Bobby Jacobs wrote a great piece called Hoeratio, one of my personal favorites. There’s a tune called Message Magique from a Dutch composer called Ben van der Linden. It’s got a real Focus feel so we wanted it on the album. And I wrote the opening rock-tune called Father Bachus.

Who played in the X album?

We did! There’s also a vocal contribution from the great Brazilian songwriter Ivan Lins, on Birds Come Fly Over, and on the Japanese bonus track Santa Theresa.

X features spoken word in some pieces like Father Bachus and All Hens On Deck. Why did you go that route?

You probably should ask Bobby Jacobs the bass player since he produced it. But personally I think it’s just Thijs’ signature, as if to say ‘Don’t worry, I’m still crazy after all those years“!! It’s nothing serious really, just a bit of fun opposing the more intellectual pieces on the album. Everybody needs a laugh now and then and so does X.

Is Latin the language used in ‘Hoeratio ’? How did that come about?

Thijs van Leer
Thijs van Leer
The first half of the song sounded like it needed something more, so Bobby thought about Thijs speaking out some words, like a poem. Thijs was reading Horatius [Horace] at the time, so it became an excerpt from his Ars Poetica, which is in Latin. At least 3 members had Latin in school so we still find inspiration in those old writings. Horatius’ excerpt tells about a flute player who’s audience has become spoiled, bored and disinterested, drunk and dying for a quick fix instead of having the patience to really experience high cultural soothing. So much in tune with the times now it seems…the decline of western civilization.

How is X distributed internationally?

It’s distributed worldwide by Plastic Head (PHD), and through our own website.

The Japanese edition of the album features two bonus tracks, Santa Teresa and Hocus Pocus (Live). Will you be releasing other exclusive editions?

The other exclusive editions are the digi-pack and the vinyl versions, next to the normal jewel case version, but they don’t come with bonus tracks. That’s strictly for the Japanese one.

Focus has released 10 albums. Do you have any live or unreleased material in your archives and are there any plans to release this material?

Yes there’s a lot of really cool stuff and yes there will be releases!

Tell us a little about the current Focus band members.

Focus, with Menno Gootjes on left
Focus, with Menno Gootjes on left
Well there’s Thijs and Pierre off course. Without them there wouldn’t be a Focus-sound, there wouldn’t be Focus, period. They’re totally unique and gifted people. They both have their roots in classical and jazz music, but they can rock hard as well.

Bobby Jacobs, the bass player, is Thijs’s stepson so he grew up with all this fantastic music surrounding him. He developed a very unique approach to bass playing, unorthodox and special. He’s got his own language on the bass and he’s the only bass player I’ll recognize by one note.

Myself, I’ve been playing with Thijs since I was 21. I’m classically trained on the piano and studied jazz at the Conservatory, but also toured with metal and rock bands. I was in Focus before, too. In 1997. It was a different line up, with Bert Ruiter on bass and Hans Cleuver on drums. After that I did a lot session work and had some bands of my own, and teaching guitar as well. It feels like I’ve found a real musical home in Focus now.

X features artwork by the iconic Roger Dean. How did you connect with him?

Our management, QEDG, is led by Martin Darvill in the UK, and he used to be the tour manager of Yes.

Martin and Roger are friends so the connection was already there. QEDG also does bands like Asia, whose covers are done by Roger as well. It’s that scene you know, very cool!

It looks like you are touring a lot lately. Where will you be playing in the next months?

The first thing will be the UK, from the 25th of January.

What other projects are you working on now?

There’s some Focus-related projects that are up for release this year, can’t tell yet what that’ll be exactly though! But it’ll be very cool. I’m working on my own album as well right now, which I’d like to release within a year.

Interview with Diego Fopiani Macias

Diego Fopiani Macias
A few months ago, a new musical group was formed in southern Spain. The band includes members from two of the best known acts in Andalusian progressive rock history, Cai and Iman. The musicians adopted a name that signifies the fusion of their ideas, Caemán. Progressive Rock Central had the opportunity to interview drummer Diego Fopiani Macias, one of the founders of Cai and co-founder of Caemán.

¿When and how did Caemán come to fruition?

It was an idea of our friend Paco Barroso, the person who conceived the return of Iman and Cai to the stage. Both bands played at various concerts in the area, including Festival MUA in Jerez, Festival del Lago Borno, Teatro J. Maria Peman in Cadiz.

Has the band made its live debut yet?

We’ll be performing on October 5 at a club called sala Paul in Jerez de la Frontera (Cadiz).

¿Are you planning any recordings?

We have several pieces in the Works, but we’d like to make sure all ideas coverage into a similar sound, ethnic jazz. That means music from here’ (he laughs).

How would you describe this union of musicians from two of the most important and creative bands in Andalusian rock?

In reality we are four musicians with a great deal of experience, and we don’t pretend to invent anything. Why musicians from Cai and Imán?, simply because of personal and musical chemistry.

Which are the main influences or sources of inspiration for Caeman?

Well, after 30 years, each one of us has followed a different social and musical path, but we all coincide in following a musical direction focused on jazz and ethnic music. When I say ethnic, I mean a little from here in southern Andalusia (not Andalusian rock or flamenco). I don’t like using music categories, but we’ll see what comes out.

How do you compose the pieces?

Each one of us composes separately. We write the songs and pass them around via email on MP3, and later we give it shape during rehearsals.

Are you still in touch with former Cai keyboardist Chano Domínguez?

I’m still in touch with him. We see each other a couple of times a year. He lives in Barcelona and I live in Cadiz.

Is there any chance that Chano will return for reunion?

I don’t think so, maybe if Cai got a very appealing economic offer.

Spain’s economy is not doing very well lately. How’s the music scene now in the Cadiz area?

Very, very bad. High profile groups or artists are reducing their size to trios, duos or solo projects so that they can fit into smaller venues. Very poorly paid.

What was the first big lesson you learned about the music business?

If we talk about business, it’s always been a bad business for musicians. But I did learn that as in other professions, you have to withstand the bad moments and reinvent yourself and go with the times.

If someone were to go to Cadiz province for the first time, what places would you recommend?

As you know, the province of Cadiz has some wonderful places. First, I would recommend a trip early in the morning through the hill country (sierra). The second thing would be to have lunch at a venta [restaurant] and eat tapas or traditional courses. I would try local embutidos (cured meats) and stews. The third thing would be to take a walk along the [Cadiz] Bay and watch its beautiful sunset. I’d like to remind you that Cadiz is over 3000 years old. Its monuments are ancient and the area has a lot of history. A lot of civilizations came through this area.

What venues, flamenco social clubs or theaters would you recommend to listen to music?

Well, I can tell you about Cadiz city which is the place I know the best. If you like jazz, we have “Cambalache Jazz” which is 25 years old. Every Thursday, musicians from Cadiz and other parts of Spain have a jam session.

If you want to listen to flamenco, go to La Peña La Perla de Cai.

What restaurants would you recommend?

In Cadiz there are a lot. If you like to eat seafood, you should go to Romerijo at Puerto de Santa Maria. You can get traditional local food at any restaurant in Cadiz.

Editor’s note: Paco Barroso later confirmed that the October 5th concert will be recorded in audio and video formats.

Stratospheric Violins

Joe Deninzon
Violinist Joe Deninzon is one of the musical sensations of 2012. He is the founder of Stratospheerius, an outstanding rock band that crosses boundaries, incorporating classic rock, progressive rock, fusion, world music and electronics. Joe discusses his musical background and latest projects with Progressive Rock Central.

Can you give our readers a brief history on how you came to be a musician?

I was born into a family of classical musicians. My father played (and still plays) the violin in the Cleveland Orchestra. My mother is a concert pianist and has around 40 students. Our house was literally a music school with people coming in and out and simultaneous violin and piano lessons being heard in different rooms, but my parents are strictly classical musicians and had no frame or reference or knowledge about any music outside of that genre.

I started playing violin and piano when I was 6, but when we immigrated to the states from Russia, I fell in love with what I was seeing on MTV and hearing on American radio. When I was 12, I took up bass, started writing songs and formed my first band. I later taught myself guitar and really felt more connected to rock and jazz music than classical. In high school I listened to a lot of Zeppelin, Kiss, Queen, and Aerosmith. I knew I wanted to be a musician for as long as I can remember, but I always knew I did not want to spend my life sitting in an orchestra. The first instruments I learned to improvise on were the bass and guitar. I later transferred the rock and jazz language I learned on those instruments to the violin.

What kind of musical training do you have?

I was studying classical violin with my father since age 6, and later at the Cleveland Institute of music. I have a bachelor’s degree in Jazz Violin and Violin Performance from Indiana University and a Master’s degree in Commercial Violin from Manhattan School of Music.

What do you consider as the essential elements of your music?

My musical tastes are eclectic, to say the least. Rock is the foundation, but all my varied influences creep in, like jazz, funk, bluegrass, Middle Eastern Music, all filtered through a distorted electric violin-fueled rock n roll meat grinder.

Your music crosses boundaries. Who can you cite as your main musical influences?

I think my top five artists of all time are Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, and Led Zeppelin. I have a deep love of 70’s fusion and progressive rock (Mahavishnu Orchestra/Jerry Goodman, Jean Luc Ponty, Yes, King Crimson, Return to Forever), But I also love great songwriting and admire people who are master performers and communicators (Beatles, Steely Dan, Bruce Springsteen, U2, Steve Vai), and the larger-than-life escapism of pure rock (Zeppelin, Queen, Muse).

I think what all my favorite artists had in common is that they just didn’t give a shit and did their thing. I think it’s about figuring out who you are being true to yourself. The music has to be honest and not contrived and the audience will feel that immediately. I am also a big fan of modern composers like John Corigliano and John Zorn, as well as Mark O’Connor, both as a writer and a player.

Your current band is called Stratospheerius. How did you come up with the name?

Years ago, I was playing in an orchestra backing up Smokey Robinson. One of the violinists had to play a solo with some really high notes and someone said, “Wow, that’s really up in the Stratosphere!” to which the violinist responded “I should’ve brought my Stratospheerius.” It was a play on words and he was making a reference to the great 17th century Italian violin maker Antonio Stradivarius. I thought this word applied well to the kind of music I was trying to write; space rock that was fueled by a wild electric violin playing way up in the stratosphere. It’s not the catchiest name in the world, but once people know us, they never forget it.

The Next World… is dedicated to bassist Robert Emmet Bowen III. What was his connection with the band?

Bob Bowen (Robert Emmet Bowen III) was a member of Stratospheerius from 2004-2007. He can be heard playing all the bass parts on the 2007 CD, Headspace, the song “House Always Wins” on the new CD, “The Next World…,” and is the upright bass player on the Joe Deninzon Trio 2010 release, “Exuberance.” I met Bob when we were both doing our Master’s Degree at Manhattan School of music in the late 90’s. We became fast friends and worked in a variety of groups together until he joined my band. He was also an incredible graphic artist and provided all the artwork for our new CD.

Tragically, Bob was killed in August of 2010 in Manhattan when his bicycle was hit by a passing truck. He was 45 and is survived by his wife, son, and daughter. In addition to my projects, Bob also worked with legendary jazz saxophonist Lee Konitz, as well as Tony Trischka, John Hicks, Joe Lovanno, Matt Wilson, James Moody, and many more. The new album is dedicated to his memory.

How would you describe the music in your latest album The Next World…?

Progressive, melodic rock with sprinkles of jazz, fusion, metal, bluegrass, ska, and Balkan Gypsy music.

Tell us about your first recordings and your musical evolution.

Joe_Deninzon's debut album Electric Blue
My first CD, “Electric Blue”, was recorded during the summer of ‘98 between graduating from Indiana University and moving to New York. It was an all-instrumental jazz-fusion album and I used a bunch of great musicians I had known in the Cleveland scene for many years. My goal was to arrive in New York with a CD in hand that I could give out, find a band, and start gigging as much as possible. At the time, I came out of jazz school and was listening to a lot of Jean Luc, Didier Lockwood, Weather Report, Mahavishnu, etc.

After this album came out I went through a bunch of different lineups in New York which eventually morphed into Stratospheerius. I had always been a singer and had written vocal songs, but could not find a way to reconcile that with all the instrumental fusion I was writing. I gradually set out to incorporate some vocal material into my set list.

The second album I did, “Adventures of Stratospheerius,” had Alex Skolnick on guitar, whom I befriended when I was teaching at the New School. This album was 50 percent vocal and had a mishmash of styles. I was still trying to figure out who I was musically. The Live Wires album also captured that era when Alex was in my band as well as Jake Ezra (guitarist for The Book of Mormon) and we were travelling around playing a lot of fusion with a few vocal rock tunes mixed in.

Long story short, I think our last album, “Headspace”, and especially the new one, “The Next World,” really capture that sound I have been seeking for years, one that combines my influences as an instrumentalist and my influences as a songwriter and vocalist. It took me ten years to really figure out what I wanted to do and establish the true sound of this band. I know it’s an ongoing journey, not a destination, but I’m really happy with the musical direction we are on right now and the response has been amazing!

How’s the current music scene in New York?

The music scene in New York is in constant flux. It’s hard for me to recognize any specific trend dominating the scene right now, but there are always amazing and creative musicians in the areas of jazz, rock, crossover classical, singer songwriters, and hip hop. I like how venues like Le Poisson Rouge have created a way to hear classical and hard-to categorize crossover music in an intimate club setting.

I love the scene in Rockwood with free music and an enormous variety of great artists coming through. World music venues like Drom and Mehanata are incredible places to hear diverse music from all over the planet. There are cynics who say the scene is not what it used to be, but there have always been and will always be cynics. New York has a way of always reinventing itself and even though your favorite venue may close, there are always new venues opening up. Plus there is the constant influx of new talent from all over the world. It’s great cause as a musician, it keeps you on your game. No matter how weird or out of the box your music is, there is always a venue in New York City where you can play it.

If you could gather any musicians or musical groups to collaborate with whom would that be?

I love all the people I’m collaborating with right now, but I can mention a few names of people I have never worked with who I think would be fun and creative: Steve Vai, Mike Keneally, Eddie Van Halen, Tal Wikenfeld, Jeff Beck, John Corigliano, Mark O’Connor, Chris Thile, Steve Howe, Rick Wakeman, Kanye West, The Roots, John Mayer, L. Shankar.

What violins do you play?

Joe Deninzon with his acoustic violin
My main acoustic violin is made in 1979 by Bernardo Gutterman, out of Chicago. The first electric violin I purchased in 1995 was a 6-string made by Eric Jensen. Right now, I play a Mark Wood Viper fretted 7-string Flying V electric violin and alternate that with my acoustic.

The day I bought my Viper in 2003, I went straight to a rehearsal with a band, plugged it in, drew my bow across the strings for the first time, and right at that moment, the big blackout happened that knocked out the whole Eastern Seaboard. Sorry about that.

Where do you purchase your violins?

My acoustic violin was given to me by my father. He had played on it for twenty years and was looking for something that would blend into the orchestra more. I brought both of my electrics directly from the makers.

Do you play any other instruments?

I play mandolin, which I picked up a few years ago, as well as guitar and electric bass. I also sing all the lead vocals in Stratospheerius. I studied piano when I was very young, then gave it up. That’s one instrument I wish I played better.

Which are your favorite violin guitar effects or techniques?

I’m interested in going beyond the traditional functions of the violin. I see a lot of unpaved territory with this instrument, even though it has been around for hundreds of years, we are just scratching the surface.

First of all, I’m endlessly fascinated with the percussive things the violin can do. “Chopping” is a technique invented by Richard Greene in the 60’s that involves muting the strings with your left hand and coming down hard with the bow, creating a “chopping” sound. Basically, your violin becomes a snare drum. This technique can be combined with chords to imitate a funky rhythm guitar, and can also be used to imitate a guiro or a DJ scratching a record. It sounds amazing with a wah wah pedal.

I also love incorporating delays and loops into my solos. It’s fun to use pitch-shifting pedals like whammy’s to create lightning fast shifts that are not humanly possible on a regular violin. Many traditional string players and acoustic purists don’t realize that working with effects is not just blindly hitting pedals or buttons. It requires taste, timing, and precise coordination between your hands and your feet.

There are times when I’m singing, improvising on the instrument, and changing sounds with my feet simultaneously. I don’t see the use of effects as a crutch to compensate for any lack of playing ability but simply a wider palette of colors to paint your music with. When it’s done right, it really has the WOW factor.

Do you still pay some of your early violins?

People see me wailing on my electric with Stratospheerius, but at least 50 percent of my life, I’m playing unplugged on my traditional acoustic violin. It’s funny that people see you doing one thing and thing that’s all you do. Most guitarists I know play a bunch of different electrics and own at least a few acoustics and go back and forth depending on the gig. I want to see the day when all string players function the same way and the electric violin is not seen as a novelty.

What was the first big lesson you learned about the music business?

That kid sitting next to you in algebra class in high school can end up being the head of your label or your booking agent or your bandmate. You might grow up hating country or bluegrass music, but 15 years later you are on a session and the producer wants you to cop that style, but because you never respected it or gave it any credence, you can’t do it and he ends up calling the next guy.

The big lesson I learned is; you can’t discount anything or anyone. Diversify your palette and respect and honor whatever music you are playing and whoever you are working with at any given time, and it will pay dividends.

Do you have any plans to take the The Next World… album on the road?

We are always performing. There are no 3-month long 90-show tours planned at the moment, but there are always shows going on in any given month in many different cities. Just check our website or facebook page and sign up for our e-list.

What music are you currently listening to?

I’m always revisiting my favorite bands like Yes and Zappa and Mahavishnu, but I’ve been listening to the new Springsteen and Keane albums. Also there’s a solo tuba and classical guitar recording of Alan Baer from the New York Philharmonic with Scott Kuney playing some badass Astor Piazolla arrangements that someone turned me on to.

Also digging the recent Black Keys and Foo Fighters releases. There is a great Maxim Vengerov recording of all the Eugene Ysaye sonatas and reworking of the Bach Tocatta that’s ridiculous. The new Nikki Minaj album has some nice moments too. Also, have you checked out this Swedish band called Dirty Loops? They do some heavy reworking of Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, and Lady Gaga that’s off the hook!

Do you have any upcoming projects to share with our readers?

Plugging in; a Guide to Gear and New Techniques for the 21st Century Violinist
I just published a book for Mel Bay titled “Plugging in; a Guide to Gear and New Techniques for the 21st Century Violinist.” Half of the book is an introduction to improvisation in the styles of blues, funk, and rock. The other half deals with gear-related things, like choosing an electric violin, shopping for an amp, working with effects. There is also a CD and DVD. This book basically answers questions that students have asked me repeatedly over the years. Some of these are things guitarists take for granted, but are completely new to string players. I basically wrote the book I wish I had when I was 17.

I also recently joined the Sweet Plantain String Quartet. This is a traditional acoustic string quartet which combines classical, jazz, Latin influence, blues, and hip hop. I sing and play violin and mandolin, the cellist raps, and the other violinist, Eddie Venegas, also doubles on trombone. This group has toured all over the world and just signed a new management deal. Look for the debut CD in the near future.

I am also constantly writing music. I have about 80 string quartet arrangements of well-known rock songs I have written which I hope to publish and make available on my website. Someday, I’d love to write an electric violin concerto, if I can find the time.

Stratospheerius’ Musicians:

Aurelien Budynek (guitar/vocals)

Aurelien hails from Bordeau, France and is a graduate of Berklee College of Music, where he studied with Dave Fiuczynski. In addition to playing with Stratospheerius since 2008, he has also toured and performed with Cindy Blackman, Vernon Reid, Daredevil Squadron (with Members of the Trans Siberian Orchestra), The Dan Band, and Rock of Ages.

Jamie Bishop (bass/vocals)

Hailing from Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Jamie is also a graduate of Berklee College of Music and has been with the band since 2007. Jamie has laid down the groove for a wide variety of artists, including the Syn and Francis Dunnery’s New Progressives, Stefani Vera, and The Prigs.

Lucianna Padmore (drums)

A member of Stratospheerius for over a decade, Bronx New York Native Drummer Lucianna Padmore has been praised by Modern Drummer magazine for the “Deep grooves and serious fusion chops.” Lucianna has been involved in many different projects in the New York scene. Performing highlights include jazz tuba player Bob Stewart, opening for Shirley Horn, Chico Debarge, Amel Larrieux, Kelis, James Spaulding, Bertha Hope, Jimmy Heath, Clark Terry, Sun Ra Archestra, Josh Rosemen Quintet, Oscar Peterson trio, and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, to name a few. Lucianna has toured in Austria, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Morocco and Haiti.


Interview with Carlos Plaza on Kotebel’s Concerto for Piano and Electric Ensemble

Carlos Guillermo Plaza Vegas
Madrid-based symphonic progressive rock band Kotebel has released a new album titled Concerto for Piano and Electric Ensemble. Kotebel’s current line-up includes Carlos Franco Vivas on drums and percussion; César Garcia Forero on guitars; Jaime Pascual Summers on bass; Adriana Nathalie Plaza Engelke on keyboards; and Carlos Guillermo Plaza Vegas on keyboards.

Kotebel has released 5 albums since 2000, including the much-admired ‘Omphalos.’ The main body of Concerto for Piano and Electric Ensemble is formed by the four movements that comprise the ‘Concerto for Piano. There are four additional pieces on the album that are based on conceptual elements.

Kotebel’s music is an approachable amalgam of avant-garde symphonic rock influenced by classical music, jazz and world music.

Composer and keyboardist Carlos Plaza reveals details about Kotebel and its new album Concerto for Piano and Electric Ensemble in this interview with Progressive Rock Central.

Tell us a little about the origin of Kotebel?

Kotebel was born at the end of the nineties. Originally it was meant to be a studio project, and the aim was to enrich my language as a composer with resources from rock, jazz, etc. During most of the nineties I wrote chamber music, with a language heavily based in an impressionist language, also influenced by 20th century composers like Ginastera, Stravinsky or Rachmaninov.

Kotebel - Omphalos
After releasing “Fragments of Light” in 2003, I was invited to participate in BajaProg 2004. I assembled some musicians that participated in previous albums and newcomers like Jaime Pascual with the idea to do a unique set of concerts, ending with the one in BajaProg. The experience led to the concept of Kotebel as a band, and it has evolved until its current configuration as an instrumental quintet. So you can divide Kotebel in two distinct phases: the first three albums as a personal studio project, and the last three as a band.

Omphalos” was the only album with the configuration that we presented in BajaProg (7 members – including flute and voice) and the last two: “Ouroboros” and “Concerto”, as the stable configuration that we have enjoyed since the end of 2007.

What is the meaning of the band’s name, Kotebel?

Kotebel is a word made up by my daughter Adriana when she was about 3 years old. She used that word to refer to any language other than Spanish. Back then I had some British colleagues and when she heard us speaking in English, she would say that we were speaking in “Kotebel”. When I had the idea to create the project, this word came instantly to my mind and I never hesitated. Later, I realized it was a great idea to use a new word because it is very easy to find references in the Internet. Except for minor references to a region in Ukraine (Koktebel), all search engines point to us.

Some have described Kotebel as Venezuelan-Spanish. What is the Venezuelan connection?

Carlos Franco Vivas
I was born in Venezuela and moved to Spain 22 years ago. In fact, I come from a family with a long musical tradition in Venezuela. My father was also a composer and dedicated a fair part of his life teaching several generations of musicians. Carlos Franco is also Venezuelan and my daughter, despite the fact that she was born in Madrid, has close ties to Venezuela since most of our family is still there. From a musical point of view, there are many references to Venezuelan folklore; in some cases very explicit (the piece ‘Joropo’ in “Omphalos” is based on a Venezuelan rhythm in 3/8) and in others (many) is hidden in our music. For example, Carlos Franco, who is a percussionist expert in Venezuelan music, incorporates many references to local rhythmic patterns.

This thing about Kotebel being Venezuelan or Spanish (or both) has been raised in other occasions and has created some controversy. I think Kotebel’s language is rather universal because my musical language is heavily based in universal classical composers, or the classic 70’s prog bands; many of them from the UK, but others from Italy or the US. So it doesn’t make too much sense to argue where Kotebel is from. It is nothing more than occidental contemporary Art-Music.

What kind of musical training do the band members have?

Cesar García Forero
Carlos Franco is a classically trained percussionist who started working in classical orchestras and worked his way into jazz, world music and later into rock (basically my fault I guess…). Adriana has been studying music since she was three; in fact, she learned to distinguish notes in a score before learning how to read. She completed her intermediate classical studies in piano (10 years) at the age of 17 and is now studying contemporary music and jazz in Madrid.

Both César and Jaime have gone through formal studies to some extent, but they are in essence self-taught musicians. In my case, I started learning music very young and was fortunate to have a great teacher at home. I continued my musical studies (piano, theory, harmony, etc.) until I graduated from college at the age of 23. When I moved to Spain I had the privilege of studying composition with Román Alis, an excellent Spanish classical composer who died a few years ago.

Tell us a little about the members of the band.

Jaime Pascual
Carlos Franco is an accomplished percussionist who also plays the drums. That explains his fresh approach to drumming; sometimes he sounds as a jazz drummer, sometimes as an African or rather Afro-Venezuelan percussionist. His playing style reminds me a lot of [Bill] Bruford.

Jaime Pascual is a precision engine; he works in other projects much denser and harsher than Kotebel. Jaime is very talented and creative; his ideas always come to enrich my initial arrangements (well, this can be said for all Kotebel members).

César is an amazing guitar player, and very versatile. I was impressed to see how he was able to stand up to the challenge of combining electric, acoustic and Spanish guitar in the Piano Concerto. He is also a very talented composer and has contributed many fine songs in several Kotebel albums.

Adriana joined Kotebel when she was 16 and, already then, she had achieved a level as a performer that I would never reach. I wrote the Piano Concerto, but would not be able to play it like she does. She feels at ease in front of a stage piano or a synthesizer and her ability to engage tightly, even in very complex passages, is simply amazing. She belongs to that privileged group of musicians that make you think that what they are playing is easy because it looks and sounds effortless. And… sharing the stage with my daughter is an indescribable feeling.

How did Concerto for Piano and Electric Ensemble come about?

From the very beginning when I created Kotebel, I had the clear objective of merging my experience as a classical and rock musician. I felt that there was still a lot to be done in terms of combining elements of both, so that the end result was more than the mere sum of its parts. The Pentacle Suite, Ouroboros (Theme and Variations) and many other pieces are rock animals with a “classical” or “academic” soul if I can put it that way. You can take most songs and see that the way themes and motifs are presented and developed, is very classical. Also, many resources used in classical composition like anticipation, reduction, augmentations, mirroring, etc., are used.

Adriana Plaza Engelke
There is no difference in my approach to writing a piece for Kotebel or a classical piece for a chamber configuration. So the “Concerto” is a natural consequence of many years’ effort. I think that the Concerto for Piano and Electric Ensemble is the piece where I have been able to take that integration to its highest level. I had been entertaining the idea of writing a Piano Concerto for several years, but it wasn’t until after releasing “Ouroboros” that I felt properly equipped for this task. It is the most demanding piece I have ever written.

I want to take this opportunity to clarify something that has been pointed out by some reviewers and musicians that have already given me some feedback on the album. Some feel that the album should have ended on the 4th movement because the rest of the pieces in the album are entirely another “breed”. Well, I was happy to hear that because it was exactly my intention. I wanted the rest of the album to act as a counterbalance to the more “academic” or “dense” ideas presented in the Concerto. In addition, I wanted to write some songs under a “less is more” approach; in other words, see how far could I go keeping things as simple as possible. In that respect, I think The Flight of The Hippogriff part II stands out. Also, it is not an accident that there is no acoustic piano in the rest of the pieces (except the Bonus track). So, if you feel like listening to a more “rockish” and “direct” Kotebel, you can start listening to the album from track 5 onwards. It’s like two albums in one.

Who can you cite as Kotebel’s main musical influences?

That’s a difficult question because the sources are diverse. From my perspective, you have to combine classical composers like Ravel or Ginastera or Messiaen, with rock composers ranging from [Keith] Emerson and [Tony] Banks to Daniel Denis (Univers Zero). Carlos Franco incorporates jazz, Venezuelan folkloric music. Adriana is a lot into film music and jazz. Jaime and Cesar are both living music encyclopedias. When they start talking about musicians and bands, I cannot recognize more than half of the names…. What I can say is that all of us know and appreciate progressive rock very well.

How does the composition process work?

Kotebel - Concerto for Piano and Electric Ensemble
All of Kotebel compositions have been written by César or by me. The process is similar: we write the music using a sequencer as the main tool and we create a MIDI template. We distribute the parts to each musician so they can become acquainted with the piece and the proposed arrangement. When we get together, we have already studied our parts and are ready to suggest changes or directly start assembling the piece. In my case, I usually accept what they suggest because they are extremely talented musicians. In short, César or I write the music, and the arrangements are more of a collective effort. What we have never done (definitely due to my academic background and also lack of time) is to write together based on fragments or ideas from different band members.

Where does Kotebel get inspiration from?

You can see from the themes in the different albums, that my inspiration sources are very diverse; however, there is one that stands out: poems written by Nathalye, my wife. They have been a constant source of inspiration, even before Kotebel. I have many songs for voice and piano and even instrumental music, based on her poems. She is responsible for the lyrics in “Fragments of Light” and “Omphalos”. In some cases, they were pre-existing poems; in other cases, she wrote the poem with a specific song in mind.

Some pieces are based in Western philosophical / spiritual works like “Mysticae Visiones”, others from Eastern sources (e.g. “Dance of Shiva”). Some are derived from Magic and Alchemy like the “Pentacle Suite”, or other sources like Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings which is the source of all creatures represented in the album “Ouroboros” or the “Flight of the Hippogriff”. Of course, there are also pieces of “pure” music, with no extra-musical relationship. The best example is the Piano Concerto.

Tell us about your first recordings.

Kotebel - Fragments of Light
From “Structures” until “Fragments of Light”, Kotebel was still a personal project. In these albums I played the drums and bass in addition to the keyboards and had different musicians invited as guests. They were recorded in my project studio, with very limited resources; however, if you look at them from the right perspective, they had to be exactly as they turned out to be in order to follow the path that led to the second phase of Kotebel as a band. I wish I had Carlos Franco and Jaime Pascual back then, and in fact I have the project of releasing a revised version of “Mysticae Visiones”.

How’s the progressive rock scene in Madrid and Spain in general?

Art-Music in general suffers in Spain from lack of support from the media and the public sector. I know this is the case everywhere, but in Spain the situation is particularly acute. It is not easy to find alternative proposals; consumption of commercial music is massive… This scenario of course is not adequate for the proliferation of progressive rock. However, there are excellent bands trying to make their way and we try to help each other out.

Nathalye and I organized 2 very successful editions of Madrid Art Music Festival in 2008 and 2009, with bands like After Crying, Trettioariga Kriget and renowned musicians like Jerry Marotta, who played with the Argentinean stick player Guillermo Cides. We also had the pleasure of presenting the Spanish band Galadriel, who had not played live for quite some years. We plan to continue organizing the festival, but we are waiting for the economic conditions to improve.

Are you full time musicians?

Kotebel live
As most progressive rock bands, we do not make a living out of our activity in Art-Music. Carlos and Adriana are music teachers but this is only a part-time activity.

The positive side of this situation is that we do not have to compromise our music due to economic concerns. We do the type of music that we want to do, play where we like and go at the pace we feel comfortable. Even though the live aspect is important and we enjoy it very much, to me the essential aspect of what we do is what we leave behind in terms of recorded material.

If you could gather any musicians or musical groups to collaborate with whom would that be?

I hope we can continue to work with bands similar to the ones with whom we have worked in the past and have become dear friends. Among others; After Crying, Koenjihyakkei and other Japanese bands (KBB, Baraka, Interpose+), the French band Yang (ex-Shylock, ex-Philarmonie) and fabulous Spanish bands like Senogul or October Equus. I’m in talks with several British, Italian and Belgian bands in order to do some collaboration, but this is in a very early stage so I cannot disclose names yet.

Do you have any plan to take Concerto for Piano and Electric Ensemble on the road?

We have confirmed concerts in Madrid (June 30th and July 12th), Austria (August 8th) and two additional concerts in Madrid in September and October. Depending on current conversations, we might add additional concerts in other Spanish cities, and the UK before the end of the year. The best way to stay updated on our live calendar and other relevant Kotebel news, is to join our Fans List at

Are you working on other projects?

Kotebel - Mysticae Visiones
We are still not working in new material for a next album. Our next important project is a 2-hour concert that we will do in Madrid at the end of October, with the intention of releasing our first live DVD. The concert will include a full rendition of the Piano Concerto, as well as material from our previous albums. Also, as I mentioned earlier, I want to work on a revised version of “Mysticae Visiones”. The idea is to re-record drums and basses but I want to preserve all the other original tracks. I also plan to recover some of the songs in the first few albums, and record them live with new arrangements. So we plan to still keep quite busy….

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Interview with Multi-Instrumentalist and Composer Ben Craven

Ben Craven
Australian progressive rock phenom Ben Craven has attracted worldwide attention in the progressive rock community with his second album, Great & Terrible Potions. The superb concept album mixes conventional songs with orchestral soundtracks. The artwork was made by legendary illustrator Roger Dean, who made the famous covers for Yes, Uriah Heep, Greenslade and Asia.

Craven discusses his musical background and various projects with Progressive Rock Central.

When did you start playing music?

I was 6 when I took up the violin. Unfortunately I was never very good at it since I hated practicing and was only ever taught to play the notes on the page. Luckily I learned a bit about music theory along the way, which could then be applied to other instruments.

What kind of musical training do you have?

That was it! I picked up a guitar fairly late in the game when I was 17, and everything started to fall into place. By that time I was more interested in not taking lessons and not studying music, so as not to take away the magic, and I wanted to rely on my instincts instead.

I’m sure formal training could have brought my technical skills up to speed much faster. But then I would have missed out on the exploration and self-discovery and interesting mistakes that all go towards forming your own musical identity. As with everything perhaps the best approach is somewhere in between.

How many instruments do you play?

Ben Craven - Photo by Michelle Aziz
Enough to be dangerous. Early on when I started writing I decided that the best way for me to get ideas out of my head was to be able to play them myself. So I’ve picked up different instruments over the years as a means to an end, rather than with the intention of mastering any one of them in particular.

In the 1970s when Mike Oldfield was doing it, being a multi-instrumentalist was remarkable. Now not so much. I can play piano and drums well enough for my own needs, and if you can play guitar you can have a crack at most stringed instruments, which I like to do. There’s some mandolin on my first album, lap steels all over the place, and I recently bought a pedal steel that needs my attention.

Which is your favorite instrument?

Fairly obviously I lean towards guitar, electric mainly. More than any other instrument I think it responds the most to the personality of the player. And on top of that there’s so much sonic territory you can explore with the choice of guitar, amplifier, pickups and effects.

But having said that I can imagine I’d be fairly contented if fate placed me in the role of a lead bass player, or decreed I must play keyboards.

When did you discover progressive rock?

Apparently I was subjected endlessly to Dark Side Of The Moon in the womb. I can believe it. I remember when I was 3 or so being particularly keen on a tape of Days Of Future Passed by the Moody Blues. So these sorts of things were in my blood before I realized it, and certainly before I had any notion of musical genres, or the unfashionability of prog at the time.

Gradually I became a huge fan of Pink Floyd, and this led me to reach out to Yes, King Crimson, ELP and Genesis. I’ll never forget the first time I heard Heart Of The Sunrise or Close To The Edge.

Who can you cite as your main musical influences?

Ben Craven - Photo by Michelle Aziz
Pink Floyd, Yes and Mike Oldfield are fairly obvious influences I think. The Beach Boys perhaps less obvious. Brian Wilson is a rite of passage that a lot of writers seem to go through. One day Beach Boys songs are catchy little things with pleasant harmonies that you take for granted. The next day after delving a little deeper they’re right at the pinnacle of pop music and you can’t go back.

Film music composers like John Williams, John Barry, Bernard Herrmann and Jerry Goldsmith are also incredibly influential. They can take the classical format and produce a 3-minute theme which is as good as anything I’ve heard. My favorite movies are the ones which are strong enough to withstand fantastic scores, and listening to the score on its own can be as good as watching the movie.

I was very upset when John Barry and Jerry Goldsmith passed away, and I’m incredibly grateful that John Williams seems to be just as strong as ever. It’s encouraging to take their lead and assume I still have 50 years of writing ahead of me!

How does the composition process work?

I’m sure it’s very different for different people. But for me there’s the inspiration and then the perspiration. The raw diamonds in the rough, the little nuggets of musical inspiration, can happen anywhere, anytime and be triggered by anything. Brian Wilson called them “feels”. It’s incredibly important to capture them at conception and let them develop as much as possible in those brief moments before the conscious mind takes control again, as it generally likes to do. Later on comes the completely different process of being a craftsman, choosing arrangements and song structures, and consciously making decisions about lyrics. That’s the hard work, but it makes all the difference between a finished song and an unfinished snippet.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

Ben Craven - Photo by Kris Anderson
That’s a difficult question. Musically, mostly I have to inspire myself these days. Otherwise the bulk of my musical inspiration would come from looking back, which isn’t altogether healthy. Fortunately it’s very easy for me to get excited about the act of musical creation, the thrill of hearing a piece of music evolve, and all the creative possibilities I can play around with until it’s finished. It’s pretty much self-sustaining and I haven’t got tired of it yet.

On the bigger scale, I take most of my inspiration from people who have managed to make a living out of creative freedom. Whether it be in film, art, books, whatever. It somehow makes a piece of work much more interesting to me if I know it’s exactly the way the creator intended it, and it’s done with conviction.

Tell us about your first recordings.

I had a dual cassette recorder and a cheap children’s keyboard with miniature keys. I discovered there was a “mixing mic” input on the back of the cassette recorder, which let me record one live overdub as a tape copied. It was a crude way of making multi-track recordings, and by the time you were finished the first track was lost in tape hiss and had been completely detuned. Still, great fun.

When I was 16 a friend introduced me to MOD trackers on the PC, which was a 4-track system using samples, note information and awful sample rates. But suddenly I was able to get ideas out of my head into a band format. I moved onto basic MIDI and followed sequencers as they grew to include audio tracks, until desktop computers were powerful enough to handle multi-track audio. Then I started recording demos for my first album, Two False Idols. By the time audio plugins were within my reach, I knew that I could also be the studio.

Your most recent album has made a splash in the progressive rock community. Why did you decide to do it as a solo project?

Ben Craven - Great & Terrible Potions
I explored progressive rock in a social vacuum. It’s not something any of my friends were particularly interested in, so I spent a lot of time listening alone. Likewise, with a few exceptions, my songwriting has generally been a solitary activity, with nobody around to criticize, improve or dilute it, and I’ve become accustomed to working that way. So when it came to record Great & Terrible Potions, I was cursed with very definite ideas on how the different instruments should sound, and I wanted to see them to fruition. I ended up being my own band, and tried to give different musical personalities to the virtual band members.

I imagine that if I’d lived in London or LA [Los Angeles] I would have met enough like-minded musicians by now to have formed a band where everyone contributed creatively. That was my intention on my first album, Two False Idols, but it never worked out that way.

You used the legendary graphic artist Roger Dean for your album design. How did you connect with him?

After the album was recorded, I explored the idea of releasing it through a local record label. The head of the label loved it and suggested that a Roger Dean cover would go very well with the music. Well, duh! Pipe dream, I thought, so I disregarded it almost straight away. But it turned out he had a friendship with Roger. We made contact and eventually came to an agreement.

Of course I’d previously met Roger and got his autograph in Sydney when Yes toured Australia in 2003, but I was just another Yes fanboy and I’m fairly sure he didn’t remember!

I’m incredibly pleased with how it all turned out. I think the painting is beautiful and it matches the dark and sinister atmosphere of most of the music very well. And it’s still hard to believe I’ve worked with one of the greatest cover artists in the world.

How important are the other art components, aside from music?

The music is most important, but I have a hard time separating some of the great classic rock albums from their iconic covers. And I’ve always been a stickler for poring over the artwork or packaging, whether it was a gatefold vinyl cover when I was a kid, or a CD booklet. It doesn’t hurt to titillate the other senses at the same time.

Now that digital downloading is taking over, I think it’s more important than ever to give people a reason to buy a physical copy. The artwork and the packaging, even the medium, can help with that. I’ve been hassled by a few people demanding to see Great & Terrible Potions on vinyl. I’m delighted to say it’s on its way in a few weeks, with a Roger Dean gatefold sleeve!

Will you be continuing to work as a solo artist or do you plan to form a band?

I can’t imagine not working as a solo artist for a while. It was a long and considered decision to put my name on the front of Great & Terrible Potions, rather than use an imaginary band name. Potions is an independent release, so with my limited funding I’ve been promoting and hoping to build up the “Ben Craven” name.

However that leads to a few problems playing live. I’ve actually just started rehearsing with a 3-piece band, reinterpreting the songs in a band context for live performance. Somehow we’ve managed to distill the symphony orchestra and soundscapes on the 11-minute ‘No Specific Harm’ down to just us!

Do you have any tours planned?

Not at this stage but I’m hoping we can do some small tours once the show is polished.

Have you been approached by any progressive rock artists inside or outside of Australia?

Not really. I don’t think Australia has a very strong progressive rock community, and I’m still fairly unknown to boot. Having said that, I’m incredibly easy to contact and open to considering all sorts of collaborations!

How’s the progressive rock scene in Australia now?

I think Australian progressive rock is doing much better overseas than in Australia. A few bands like Unitopia and Anubis have done very well, and Sebastian Hardie has a new one out too. But there’s very limited local radio support and the population is just too small for sustained live work. Most of the prog rock market appears to be overseas. In fact my biggest sales have been in Europe.

Making a living from music is not easy, are you a full time musician?

I’m afraid not. I’m the musician, the studio and the label, which means I fund the lot and need a day job! The advantage of that situation is I have complete creative control and don’t have to worry too much about compromising my work to meet a particular deadline.

If you could gather any musicians or musical groups to collaborate with whom would that be?

I’d be thrilled to work with any of my musical heroes from any aforementioned bands. I’d equally be as thrilled just to have a drink with them. I think Billy Sherwood has the right idea, producing tribute albums and collaborating with everyone he wants to! Bill Bruford or Nick Mason please give me a call to discuss your session fee for playing drums on my next album.

What was the first big lesson you learned about the music business?

That nobody really cares. The music “business”, like any business, is there primarily to make money. These people need to make a living. If you as an artist can help the business make money, the business will be friends with you. But mainly because of your potential for making income, rather than your artistry. Artistry and commerce working hand in hand is a precarious position fraught with danger.

Ben Craven - Two False Idols
But once you choose not to take any of this stuff personally, it’s up to you whether or not you want to work within those confines. Great & Terrible Potions was made outside of the business. I can’t see how I could have done it any other way.

Are you working on new projects?

I’ve just finished working on the vinyl version of Great & Terrible Potions, and the LPs should be arriving at my doorstep any day now. I’ve also completely remixed and remastered my previous album, Two False Idols, which is available on Bandcamp shortly.

I’m halfway through a concept album about a turn-of-the-century Oklahoma outlaw who just happened to be called Ben Cravens. It’s a strange combination of country and prog. But I’m itching to start working on the natural follow-up to Potions. The demos have been completed for a while and I’m really looking forward to finishing them off. It will probably have more symphonic elements and teeter on the edge between film soundtrack and rock album.

Interview with Steve Babb and Fred Schendel of Glass Hammer

Glass Hammer - Photo by Julie Babb
Symphonic-progressive rock band Glass Hammer is one of the leading acts in the genre in the United States. Glass Hammer formed in 1992 when multi-instrumentalists Steve Babb and Fred Schendel began to write and record Journey of the Dunadan, a concept album based on the story of the Ranger of the North, Aragorn, a fictional character from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. To their surprise, the album sold several thousand units via the Internet, The QVC Shop-At-Home Network and phone orders, leaving Babb and Schendel convinced that the band was a project worth continuing.

Although many musicians have appeared on Glass Hammer albums over the years, Babb and Schendel have remained the core of the band. Both play a variety of instruments, but Babb mainly concentrates on bass guitar and keyboards while Schendel plays keyboards, various guitars and drums. Their latest album is Cor Cordium. Co-founders Steve Babb and Fred Schendel discuss their music with Progressive Rock Central.

Cor Cordium seems to have a connection with your previous album If. Is this a second part?

Fred: Well, it’s stylistically related, for sure but it’s not consciously a continuation of an exact same sound.

Steve Babb - Photo by Julie Babb
Steve: We’ve expanded on the strengths of the new band members that came along for “If”. But there was no conscious effort to re-create or surpass anything we did on “If”. We just wanted to make another good album; and I think we’ve done that. There are similarities, but that’s as far as it goes.

How has Glass Hammer’s music evolved throughout the years?

Fred: It’s funny because we’re always interested in making music that doesn’t sound exactly like the music we’ve already made, and even though some might think that’s what the genre is all about we get in real trouble sometimes because of it. We’ve been trying to mix trying new things, i.e. going a little harder with Culture Of Ascent or psychedelic with Three Cheers, with refining what we do as a classic sounding symph band. We try and identify our strengths and work with them. I think we’ve learned enough about what this current version of the band does well with these two releases that the next will really be something amazing.

How does the composition process work?

Fred Schendel - Photo by Julie Babb
Fred: Generally, I think, we just sit down and see what kind of ideas and themes come to us. Then it’s all about arranging and extending those ideas, and seeing how one thing can logically lead to something else. Composing is 50% arranging, if not more.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

Fred: Oh, I think it filters in from everywhere. Of course, all the music you grow up listening to, but I think anything that you hear might have ideas in it that lead you somewhere. I honestly don’t know sometimes. It’s safe to say that a lot of it is classical music and the prog bands of the 70’s. But I personally listen to funk, pop, punk and all kinds of stuff.

Steve: Movies, books, art, life experience – all that plays a part for me. I certainly remain inspired by my favorite bands from the seventies, but also a lot of non-prog bands that are new to the scene. I’m a Christian too …. a lot of inspiration comes from my faith. And a lot from my wife and son too!

Making a living from music is not easy, are you full time musicians?

Fred: We have a recording studio, so we’re full time producers of music and sound-related endeavors even if we’re not always acting as musicians.

Steve: Making a living from anything isn’t easy anymore. Any one who is working and making money is struggling day by day to do so. But I guess musicians who can make a living, any living at all, have nothing to complain about. Music production pays the bills for us, no one is starving. We’re fortunate!

Steve Babb - Photo by Brian Tirpak
Are you all based in the Chattanooga area?

Fred: Right now the whole band is indeed local, apart from Jon Davison who lives in California. Which is a bummer for us but that’s just how it is! We’re trying to find a drummer from here that can join us full time.

Nashville is known for country music and Memphis for blues, is there something about Chattanooga that set the ground for one of the best progressive rock bands in North America?

Fred: The music scene here is dismal. It’s just a coincidence we lived here and took initiative to get our music recorded and out into the world. Before 1993 that would have been next to impossible living somewhere like Chattanooga. But we started around the time when the world-wide web became a viable marketing tool and pro-grade recording equipment became affordable.

Steve: The eastern-Tennessee region has a number of prog bands to its credit. Salem Hill, Neal Morse, Glass Hammer (of course), and once upon a time there was a band called Somnambulist who Fred and I got to produce. But it’s coincidence. The general populace is unaware that bands like GH exist here.

Did your success stimulate the progressive rock scene in Chattanooga?

Steve: We’re better known in Chattanooga as producers. And as such I think we’ve had a positive impact on a number of artists. But very few Glass Hammer fans hail from our home town. There really isn’t a prog-rock scene here, and we certainly haven’t put any energy into creating one.

Your band follows the great progressive rock tradition of the 1970s, with epic songs and fantasy artwork. How important are the other art components, aside from music?

Fred: I think it’s very important. We, as people, really contribute nothing as far as any kind of image. It has to come from art. That’s the visual side of what we do. We love having good art as a compliment to the music.

The keyboards you use like mellotron and organ are some of the most cherished by progressive music fans. What keyboards [models] do you use? Where and how did you get them?

Fred Schendel - Photo by Brian Tirpak
Fred: Well, we do own a real Hammond organ (a CV with a Leslie 147) and a real Minimoog and some other old analog synths, but they are next to impossible to keep working. I’ve had the Minimoog since 1979; my parents, bless them, got it for me when I was 15. We use a blend of the real ones when they work and various software emulations. I know enough about how things should sound I can fool most of the people most of the time. I was an endorser of Nord keyboards for a while and I can’t recommend them highly enough. The Nord Electro and Nord Lead synths are wonderful.

Steve: I’ve had a Yamaha CS-5 synth since 1980. I still pull it out and use on Glass Hammer albums now and then. It’s getting a little noisy, but it has a charm I can’t find in other keyboards or soft-synths.

If you could gather any musicians or musical groups to collaborate with whom would that be?

Fred: Well, at this jaded point in life I don’t know if I have a fantasy along those lines any more. Jon Anderson was at the top of the list and we got to do that. I would have to say if I had a chance to meet Thijs Van Leer and collaborate, with him on keys or flute, that would be amazing. There are hundreds of musicians out there that getting to work with would be a huge honor. But, I don’t feel particularly motivated to seek them out.

Steve: I’d love to be Todd Rundgren’s bassist for at least one project. Working with Bowie would be cool too. I’m actually happy and, I think, extremely lucky to collaborate with Fred, Jon and Alan; along with many of the former Glass Hammer members. GH is my ‘dream band’. I’m totally serious about that!

What was the first big lesson you learned about the music business?

Glass Hammer - Cor Cordium
Steve: I’ve learned a lot of lessons through the years, but the first big lesson was simply this: Do the music that makes you the happiest without any expectation of assistance from the ‘music industry’. Start a project and see it through. I guess that’s really two lessons, but they kind of go together for me. A lot of musicians seem to dream big but never complete anything. And they seem to think that some record company mogul is going to drop out of the sky with a big check and a contract. It doesn’t work that way. Be prepared to go it alone!

Fred: For me, once I learned to let go of the performing musician fantasy and think about becoming a producer who sits behind the board it all worked out. Now I get to do Glass Hammer and I don’t have to work at a computer store.

Do you have any tours planned?

Fred: No, but we are actively searching for some venues to get this version of the band out and playing!

Are you working on new projects?

Fred: We are putting a song together for a new Colossus project with an H. P. Lovecraft theme and it’s going to be fantastic. And we’re thinking towards a new album, and our initial idea is to make it VERY huge.

Steve: That’s it. I’m hoping we’ll start writing soon. We’re talking a lot about what the new album should be or could be. Now it’s time to get to work!

Interview with Progressive Rock Legend Jon Anderson

Jon Anderson - Photo by Tami Freed
Jon Anderson, the legendary progressive rock vocalist that fronted Yes for many years is back with numerous projects. The most interesting by far is Open, a long musical suite with four movements produced by Jon and Jane Anderson that has brought back the wondrous sounds that Anderson is known for. Jon Anderson composed the music and wrote the lyrics. Stefan Podell made the orchestration and additional music.

You made many progressive rock fans very happy with Open. When did you start working on this project?

About a year ago…I started with an acoustic guitar, put down a framework, and then Stephan Podell did a wonderful orchestral arrangement…We talked about how best to make ‘Yes fans’ enjoy the journey, I think that was my motivation…

What instruments do you play on Open?

Just acoustic guitar.

And in general, what instruments do you play?

I’ll play anything, not great, but just enough to make it work…I love piano, and guitar mostly.

Who else participated in the Open recording?

Jane Luttenberger Anderson on angel Vocals; Stefan Podell on music and orchestration, 12 string guitar, classical guitar and bass; Zach Tenorio Miller on piano; Zach Page on electric guitar; Alexandra Cutler-Fetkewicz with Jon Fink and Susan Lerner on strings; Kevin Shima on acoustic guitar and vocals; Brian Hobart on Percussion; Stephan Junca on drums and African Percussion; Charles Scott on drum kit; Cal Poly A Cappella group (Robert Foster, Ian O’Rourke, Madelyn Frey,Jacob Stringfellow, Aaron Wolfe, and Amy Stevens); and additional backing vocals by Billy James.

The complexity of Open reminded me of your legendary solo album Olias of Sunhillow. Will there be more music in this direction?

I’m just working on the next ‘opus’…called ‘Ever’

You’ve had recent solo tours, including one with your with your old friend and former Yes colleague Rick Wakeman. How did that work out?

Rick Wakeman (left) & Jon Anderson (right)
Rick is fun to work with, he’s playing better than ever, and the songs we do are great to sing. Audiences love the banter between us,…and the new songs really have a different energy.

How is Rick doing health wise?

He’s really very well.

Will you be recording more with Rick Wakeman?

I hope this next few weeks we will work together.

Argentine Stick virtuoso Guillermo Cides mentioned recently that he will be working with you and Australian Truey Marks on a new project in 2012. Can you share some details about that?

Ask him to contact me please…

How do you find the time to play in so many projects?

It’s that time of my life, after nearly dieing in 2008, I realized I should try and finish my work…well, there’s more than I would believe…so I just keep working on the music…it helps everything…

You are a singer and also a songwriter. How do you work as a composer?

I usually sing with guitar, record everything I do, almost everyday a new song comes…it’s wonderful.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

The divine ‘love’ that surrounds us.

I’d like to take you back to the early 1970s. Yes made albums that are considered progressive rock masterpieces. I’m talking about Fragile, Close to the Edge, Tales from Topographic Oceans and Relayer. What was happening at that time that led you and your band mates to compose such incredible music?

I was driven to try new music, we were being told to write ‘hit songs’…I just felt it would be a waste of the talent within the band, so I chose to escape, and help create new music…it is wonderful to look back at those times; we were in perfect ‘harmony’ with each other.

If you could gather any musicians or musical groups to collaborate with whom would that be?

I would start with Tony Levin, Billy Cobham, etc etc…

In this age of economic turmoil and social unrest, do you have a message you’d wish to impart through your music?

Change is good…and Change we must…

Jon Anderson
What music genres, groups or CDs are you currently listening to?

Amharic music…Ethiopian…

We interviewed the Senegalese singer Baaba Maal and asked what song was he completely addicted to – the one song that he will sing along with every time – and he told us his song was “One Love” by Bob Marley. What is your one song?

‘I will fix you’…and a million others…

What do you like to do during your free time?

Paint, cook, watch Soccer and ‘American Football..walk with my Janee.

What country would you like to visit?

China, I’ve been there 3 times, amazing culture……..Africa…India.

Which is your favorite city?


What was the first big lesson you learned about the music business?

No such thing as a free lunch…

What other projects are working on?

A zillion projects…tons of them…