Rocket Scientists are the California prog-rock band founded in 1993 staffed by Erik Norlander (keyboards, vocals), Mark McCrite (guitars, vocals), and Don Schiff (bass, viola, cello, mandolin, plus). Their new release comes some 22 years after they began, the aptly titled Refuel. This, and the sister EP Supernatural Highways from earlier last year, demonstrate that the band is focused on compositions over noodling, on content over form. This is, above all, “listenable” progressive craft – songs build and flow naturally, and themes of renewal in the lyrics are relatable. For aficionados, you will hear the chops, and all the things we expect from skilled musicians who are reaching beyond pop, but above all the songs take center stage. Erik himself emphasizes this in the liner notes and states the case for song craft above all else.
The band is in top form on this record. Songs like “It’s Over” –one of Mark’s best pieces, are driven by drummer Gregg Bissonette’s propulsive beats, which are key throughout. Mark’s lead vocals express the melody with lyrics that adhere as across the album to the theme of transitions – of shedding the past and chasing new beginnings – refueling for a new day:
I wish that I could just start over
And feel alive again
Wake me up to face the new day
One more chance to shed my skin
‘Cause it’s over
Bass player Don Schiff penned two fine instrumentals and adds beautifully to the acoustic bits with lots of viola, cello, and mandolin. His playing on both fretted and fretless Stick continually impresses – highlighted nicely in their videos. This plus guests players on trumpet and trombone really round out the sound of the band.
Mark’s opening instrumental, the title track “Refuel” gives the group a chance to showcase their playing, with a fine central melody also expressed via chorus that includes Lana Lane, who also sings lead with Erik on the final track. The second song, “She’s Getting Hysterical” and following rocker “Martial” both written by Erik, are some of his best compositions, something impressive to find on a late era record by any band. All in all this one will certainly be considered by listeners to be a fantastic addition to their collection.
I caught up with Erik this week to get some more color on the new release:
[D]: What led you to pursue this next Rocket Scientists project at this time – is there a sense of special causality?
[Erik] We launched this recording project at the end of 2012 with the idea of doing something new to celebrate the 20th anniversary of our first release, which would occur the next year in 2013. So Mark, Don and I all started writing music and passing around demos, and we did a lot of recording throughout 2013. As you know, we ended up writing a bit too much for a single album, or at least for a cohesive single album regardless of length. So at the beginning of 2014, we released the Supernatural Highways album, a 30-minute all-instrumental EP that was really Part One of this greater project. We shot a 26-minute video for the main song, “Traveler on the Supernatural Highways,” at the very end of 2013 — right between Christmas and New Years if memory serves — and then released it on the same day as the album in early 2014. We then took the first three quarters of 2014 to finish the rest of the recordings, which became the Refuel album, a full-length album in the modern sense with both vocal and instrumental tracks. More of a “traditional Rocket Scientists album,” if such a thing exists!
I made the decision to not announce either album too early or even talk about them too much while they still being created. I saw so many other artists — friends and strangers both — that talked so much about what they were *going* to do, what great music they were *going* to release, all the great musicians they were *going* to work with. It all got really stale to me, even a bit irritating. We could throw around some clichés like “talk is cheap,” “actions speak louder than words,” all that kind of stuff. But that was really my mindset. I didn’t want to *talk* about what was coming, what I was doing. I just wanted to DO it. I wanted to complete the work in the way that I wanted it done — no compromises, no deadlines, no release date promises — and once it was safely wrapped up and off to the manufacturer, THEN announce it. This approach shocked a lot of people, and the first 2014 release surprise even some close friends! Obviously after the Supernatural Highways release, I did have to mention that there was “more music coming,” but beyond that, I made no promises and provided no details. It may have cost us some sales in the end as this is not the way albums are promoted in the traditional sense. There is always a run-up of some kind, some advance promotion, etc. But these are strange days we are living in, and the old rules don’t seem to apply anymore. So why not try something new!
[D]: Now in your third decade in Rocket Scientists, how has your writing process matured with Mark, Don and your other collaborators? What part of this comes when you are together vs. writing separately?
[Erik] In the past, the songwriting process would often be that one of the guys handed me an idea, and I finished it. I took it the final distance and turned it into an actual song. Sometimes that just meant writing lyrics, sometimes some musical elements like a clever bridge or interlude, or sometimes adding a complete song core section like a chorus. It was very much a serial process. Now on Refuel, there is actually little *writing* collaboration. I think the only song that has two writers credited is “It’s Over,” which is primarily a Mark McCrite song that Don Schiff added to. The rest of the compositions are singularly penned, and all three of us individually contributed important songs to album.
That might sound *less* collaborative than before! But what came during the production process was where the real collaboration happened. We worked as a group or two at a time as myself and Mark, Mark and Don, Don and myself, all three incarnations, and during those sessions we built on each other’s songs and expanded each other’s vision with a true band spirit. I don’t think any of us felt like “session players” when we were working on the others’ songs. We all had total liberty to flesh them out as we imagined. And that made for a fantastic collaboration in the end. Even the long video for “Traveler on the Supernatural Highways” was a total collaborative effort. We discussed some concepts and how to execute the thing without bringing in an expensive film crew, and I think what came out of that is a very honest, very sincere music video that really represents we musicians doing what we do!
[D]: How did the demise of “Asia Featuring John Payne” play into the timeline and recent events? How so also your work with the Galactic Collective?
[Erik] The “Asia Featuring John Payne” project continually promised new original material for 6 full years … and in the end only released one original song after all that! I had such high hopes for the band. It was supposed to be the point at which the “Original Asia” and this new band, “Asia Featuring John Payne,” diverged and did their own things, forged their own individual futures. That’s what I signed on for, in any case. But it just didn’t go that way, and I’m afraid John Payne took a different path than what the fans — and of course some of the band members including myself — wanted and logically expected. I did give quite a lot to the project, and a big part of that was songwriting. But as literal years passed and no original material was released, I had to make the hard decision to start re-purposing my compositions for something else. I wrote a song called “Believe” for the Asia project that I ended up re-recording for the Lana Lane — El Dorado Hotel album. And then the lead track from the new Rocket Scientists — Refuel album is “She’s Getting Hysterical.” This is a song I wrote for Asia Featuring John Payne in 2007 right after joining the band. It was never pursued. There are other tracks on Refuel that could have easily gone into the Asia direction, “Cheshire Cat Smile” and “The Fading Light” definitely have that kind of harmonic and melodic structure. But I wrote those songs much later into the life of Asia Featuring John Payne, and I simply didn’t offer them to the band since I had so many other compositions hanging in limbo there. You can only beat your head against a brick wall for so long until you realize that the brick wall is not moving, you are not getting anywhere, and hey, this hurts!
As far as The Galactic Collective, that is the project that keeps on going and going! This started off as a studio project in 2009 where I wanted to re-record 10 of my favorite instrumental compositions from various albums but do them all with a singular, unified approach as a new instrumental album. That’s where the “collective” part comes from! It is truly a collection of songs that was re-imagined. The album was quite well-received, and I put together a live band with the three main musicians from the studio album. We played some good dates including the 2011 Rites of Spring Festival (aka RoSFest) where we recorded the Live in Gettysburg album and DVD. After that, I set about recording the next project, the Lana Lane — El Dorado Hotel album that was released early in 2012. But something strange happened. People kept offering me gigs for “The Galactic Collective.” It was a fine set of music, and music that I really enjoyed performing. So I actually did several little tours of The Galactic Collective in 2013 and 2014 that took us all over the US and even down to Mexico — not once but twice! — for several shows there. The last run down to Mexico was for three theater concerts in late 2014. Mark McCrite joined me on that tour as the guitarist which worked really well as we were just wrapping up the Refuel album after some pretty intense work together throughout the year.
Q: The focus of this release is the songwriting not the gadgets, but just to be sure, are there any notable new instruments to speak of or any left behind that fans or musicians would be interested in knowing about?
[Erik] There are some great new instruments that came into the Rocket Scientists galaxy for the 2014 releases, but none of them are synthesizers! I still rely on my classic keyboards like the Moog synths, the Hammond organ, the Mellotron, the Rhodes, and hey, the grand piano. But the new things that came to these productions actually are via Don Schiff and Mark McCrite! In the time since the last Rocket Scientists recording (2007), Don Schiff taught himself the cello and viola. He had of course played upright bass / contrabass, so it was perhaps more “adapting” to the smaller stringed instruments rather than learning something totally new. But Don dove in with both feet and came back to the band with this whole new tonal and arrangement technique. I even loaned him my mandolin, which he used on the Refuel album quite a bit and is still at Don’s studio today. And I have no plans to ask for it back anytime soon! Don also has a new Emmett Chapman invention, the half-fretless NS/Stick. Don has been playing the original prototype of the NS/Stick since 1998, a fretted 8-string instrument. But Don had been discussing ideas with Emmett to create a new version that would have the 4 lowest strings fretless and the top 4 strings fretted. Emmett of course built another amazing instrument here, and Don played it quite extensively on both Supernatural Highways and Refuel. Then Mark McCrite brought some new guitars to the sessions. He had some new acoustic guitars, of course, even including an acoustic baritone guitar! Those sounded great as we would expect from Mark, but the real surprise was this fairly straight-ahead Les Paul Gold Top guitar with P90 pickups. Something about that particular guitar and Mark’s playing style really interact in an amazing way, especially for his lead work. He still brings out his 70s Strat for when that sound is called for, but this Gold Top Les Paul is really something special.
[D]: The third video for this album is coming out shortly – how do videos today impact your ability to get the music out there and heard? Any plans to perform live soon?
[Erik] I have no plans to tour as Rocket Scientists, but you never know what happens, what offers hit the table – so I should never say never! But, I decided instead to put a great deal of effort into several music videos for the 2014 albums. Don and Mark really supported that idea, and so we pursued it fairly aggressively. The beginning of 2014 saw the 26-minute video for “Traveler on the Supernatural Highways” which was self-produced by the band. Then for the Refuel videos, I enlisted my friend, Erik Nielsen, who shot the Asia Featuring John Payne “Seasons Will Change” video and had joined us on some of The Galactic Collective tours. Erik Nielsen had recently partnered with an excellent screenwriter-director-producer friend named Heidi Hornbacher, and the two them basically formed a production company. I asked them to create videos for the Refuel album, and so far the results have been great! We released the “She’s Getting Hysterical” video first, at the very end of November 2014, and then we followed that up with the “It’s Over” video just before Christmas. We’ll release the next one in January, and then another one after that for which we’ve already shot the footage!
I do intend to continue touring with The Galactic Collective musicians, although the name will have to change once I start introducing new material there since “The Galactic Collective” really refers to that specific body of work.
Here’s hoping a chance to present Refuel does arise and we see more of the Rocket Scientists out of the lab, into a clinic near you! In the meantime, this new release is highly recommended.