Fleetwood Mac is one of the most popular and successful bands of the last four decades. Their mega-hit albums Fleetwood Mac (1975), Rumors (1977), their masterpiece, Tusk (1979), and follow-up Mirage (1982) were staples of the FM airwaves in Southern California where I grew up. Each member of the band came with a public persona that seemed real, not something manufactured by the music press, where they appeared frequently. Many of my friends hung their posters, and followed their exploits closely, particularly due to their very personal, confessional lyrics and their appeal as representatives of who we were at that point in the 70’s.
While the band began life as a British blues act in 1967, numerous personnel changes resulted in a cross-pond partnership of both British and American musicians that together had global appeal. Peter Green, Bob Welch, Danny Kirwan – many guitarists and members rotated in and out of this ever-changing band in the early years. In 1975, desperate to save the band after many drug and alcohol fueled hard times, core members Mick Fleetwood (drums), John McVie (bass) and his wife Christine McVie (keyboards, vocals) recruited Lindsey Buckingham (guitar, vocals) and his then girlfriend Stevie Nicks (vocals) to join the already well-honed trio. There had already been nine Fleetwood Mac albums. The rest as they say is history. Or is it?
The Mac continued to release material and tour on and off again with or without Lindsay and Christine though to 2015. We saw them with the entire classic lineup and that I assumed would be the last time.
Then several things apparently happened, which led to the sacking of Lindsay Buckingham last week:
Lindsay reports that the Mac will record a new album for 2015, and stage a last tour (yeah, right!)
Stevie reports that she is reluctant to work on new material, lest it cloud memories of the old, and why do it anyway?
Lindsay/Christine report that they recorded many songs, none of them with Stevie.
Lindsay / Christine release an album and tour in 2017, just last year!
In 2018, in April it is announced that Lindsay has been “sacked” from the group, and the next tour due planned to kick off this year (2018). The reason given – arguments of the set list (the set list, really?!?!)
It is joyfully announced by the way that Split Enz / Crowded House / solo genius from down under, Neil Finn will join the band for the new tour, and will be accompanied by Mike Campbell of Tom Petty fame!!!!
For many fans this will erroneously be considered bad news. The Mac without Lindsay, didn’t they try that after Tango in the Night, to disastrous results?
Yes, and no. Well at least, they did not have the new secret weapon – they did not fill the guitarist/singer role with a star or stars adequate to the task. Enter Neil Finn, who is easily the greatest musician, along with brother Tim, to work in and outside of New Zealand…. basically ever. I would consider them The Beatles of ANZ. Neil’s work is not nearly as well known as the Mac. Neither Split Enz, Crowded House, Finn, nor Neil Finn played to stadiums outside ANZ to my knowledge. Here in the states, the typical venues for anything Neil Finn would fit 2,500-5,000 patrons. No “sheds,” basketball arenas or much less stadiums for the genius from down under. It’s the same story for his brother Tim Finn, the greatest tenor vocalist of the 80’s.
All that will change for Neil with the Mac, as long as the publicity is done right and they get fans to the shows. Here it will likely be the Oracle or SAP arenas, particularly if fans “get it” and the publicity is well handled – that is important. So far, there are good words coming out of the camp, with some expressions of excitement.
But listen people – this should not be hard — Neil Finn is a major songwriter, vocal talent, and in fact an amazing guitarist. If all you know from him is “I Got You,” or “One Step Ahead” with his brother in the Enz, or “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and “Something So Strong” from the debut Crowded House album, you are sadly out of touch with this, one of the world’s greatest songwriting and performing talents – you have some catching up to do! Try Crowded House albums Together Alone(1993) and incredibly, the more recent Intriguer(2010). How about his solo work, Try Whistling This, it is achingly gorgeous. Compare the newer Housesong “Amsterdam” to anything off the new Buckingham/McVie album, as pleasant as it is, and it is a stellar album by the way. But again, check it against new lead man Neil Finn, and hear the difference.
You can easily imagine, if your ears are tuned, Neil will clearly grace anything the band wants to do which covers Buckingham, Green, Welch or any of the talented crew that have joined and left the Mac’s lineup. Reportedly, unshackled by a picky approach to the set list, there will be surprises. Why not go back and do “Hypnotized” along with other early gems? Finn can nail all of them.
Now, add to this that we are not only getting Neil Finn. On top of that we will have Mike Campbell, the long time guitarist from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Anyone who saw Tom perform, rest his dear soul, knows what an amazing lead player Mike is. Now this is getting exciting, concert fans.
See this lineup – maybe the last you say? No, more likely just another chapter. But, the Mac lives on, above and below the equator, and we are all better for it.
p.s. fans of all things Lindsay, of course he will do a solo tour, so…. peace.
As we learned in part II of this 3 part series, Split Enz was formed by singer/songwriter Tim Finn in 1973, along with Phil Judd (guitars). Tim’s younger brother Neil joined the band for their 1977 album Dizrythmia. While punk was raging in Britain (Sex Pistols) and pop-punk in the states (Ramones), Split Enz was still recording decidedly-not-punk music, while making quiet preparations to draw the world into their loving circle.
Where we left off, this marvelous act had released a two-fer-of ear candy – True Colors (1981), and Waiata (1981). The two albums that came next will forever go down in the cannon of proggy-new-wave music as absolutely perfect records based every possible measure.
Time and Tide was recorded in 1981 and released in 1982; the third number 1 album Split Enz brought to ANZ. Tim’s opener to side 1, “Dirty Creatures” (also written by Neil and Nigel) and accompanying video were instant classics for new wavers of the 80’s. “Pioneer/Six Months in a Leaky Boat” grace side 2 and similarly nail every newly minted model in the new wave genre, while being a bit of a sea shanty at the same time! Said to be somewhat autobiographical, the Creatures/Six Months tracks were instant Tim Finn-led classics. In between, Tim’s “Never Ceases to Amaze Me,” and “Small World” cap a brilliant collection from this tenor wonderkind.
The pair of Finn brothers are credited with “Lost for Words,” quite possibly the greatest Enz song on record. Great lyric: “I can’t relate, to your vicious excuses, the damage has all been done, and talking is useless….” Now listen to the bass/drum beats of the verse/chorus and in particular the middle section, while Eddie plays a haunting set of chords that chill, leading back to the verse “I’m looking for words, I give it all I got, And I’m lost for words, you don’t even listen – its’ all been said before so I’ll just turn and walk away.”
Neil is not to be outdone on this classic Enz record. He checks in with “Hello Sandy Allen,” (the world’s tallest woman) and my favorite early Neil track, “Take a Walk.” The lilt of his upbeat guitar, the happy yet seriously dramatic sound of Eddie’s piano thrill as Neil sings:
I could take a walk again
Up a mountain to a stream
Standing on the open rock
Looking out over the sea
Funny when we move ahead
Never worry what we leave behind
Remember what a friend of mine said
You gotta be kind
Now, before the band composition “Make Sense Of It” which closes the record, the brothers each pen a classic seemingly autobiographical two-fer – Tim’s “Haul Away” (“at 21 I was thirsting for experience and my brain was about to burst”) and Neil’s more haunting, dramatic reading, “Log Cabin Fever:”
It’s cold out hear the wind howl down the chimney
Wish I could just cry out to someone, help
But we live in isolation of the cruelest kind
Scared to show our colours to the world
Time to break away from my condition
Rejoin the human race, see what I’m missing
Try to face the day my private passion
Is eating me away
It’s well worth mentioning at this point that Noel Crombie (drums) and Nigel Griggs (bass) have honed their fine skills to the point that every song is anchored and embellished with their work. Many of the most effective parts they play are based on a kind of aboriginal tribal sound, a compelling combination of tones that will move even the most jaded listener. They teach a master class at the low end.
That any tour dates from the Time and Tide tour were caught on video is a miracle. It was getting more common by the early 80’s to capture bands on video, but we have many examples to share of groups that have paltry little to show in terms of live in concert documentation.
The live show is taken from an evening in Canada at Hamilton Place in 1982. While to date only available on VHS and YouTube, hopes remain that a proper restoration will come to light for those who never saw the band in their prime.
The final recording to feature the classic 1980-1983 lineup of Split Enz follows Time and Tide. Marred by a lack of basic PR — hampered by mistakes made by Mushroom Records, they do only a short tour for this record upon its release in 1983. Instead, Tim releases his first solo album, a beautiful work titled Escapade, and the band, essentially, spontaneously dissolves. This time though, Tim’s outside work allow more focus on Neil, who pens 6 of the tracks on this final brothers-together album Conflicting Emotions. Importantly, Neil’s work includes the ode to his newborn son, Liam, called “Our Day.” Considered by this ardent fan as Neil’s greatest lyrical achievement (with unbelievable band backing) the singer /multi-instrumentalist /songwriter pens the greatest cautionary welcome to a child, still in the womb, ever attempted:
Let our love create another life
It’s growing even as we speak
He don’t know what’s waiting for him here
Suspended in his dream sleep
His mother’s all around him
His father’s just a sound to him, singing gently
We have promised him a future
So I’m hoping that tomorrow
Is, was, and will ever be
And we’re waiting now
Waiting for our child to come
The old age is near the end
The new one’s just begun
There’s a face that I will come to love
That I have never seen before
There’s a brain that’s absolutely free
From any kind of conscious thought
You are me, and you are she
It won’t be long ’til we meet
And I’ll be going on a journey
In a flimsy paper boat upon a stormy sea
And so we’re waiting now
Waiting for our child to come
The old age is near the end
The new one’s just begun
Yes we’re waiting now
For something burning far away
Tear the old age down for good
Welcome the young one
I’m shaking like a leaf
Wound up like a spring tonight
You say this ain’t no place for children
Oh God, I hope that what we’ve done is right
Am I vain to feel as if the world
Owes anything at all to me
Searching, burning, tossing and turning
And so we’re waiting now
Waiting for our child to come
Can’t imagine what the future holds
Just hoping there is one
Yes we’re waiting now
For something burning far away
Tear the old age down for good
Welcome the young one
Hear this my son, I promise you the best that we can do
We love, we love, we love, we love, we love, we love you…
(I hope sincerely that Neil does not mind the reprint here – I do not like to do this, but I talked to Liam about this song, and he shared that it was truly written for him, and it’s just one of the best lyrics written ever, ever, ever, period (peace Neil)).
Neil Finn just nails everything he does on Conflicting Emotions, including opener “Straight Old Line” (also objectively, the best video of the band) “Message To My Girl” (which sent hearts a flutter all over the world), and “No Mischief” followed by “The Devil You Know.” At this point it’s clear — and fortunate, Neil is ready to lead the band, and eventually form his own, Crowded House.
Tim contributes stellar tracks once again, “Working Up An Appetite,” “I Wake Up Every Night” ” (ode to dance lover – this time he do want to dance!), “Conflicting Emotions,” (their most spacey, proggy cut of the band’s catalog and an overt vocal display of vibrotechnics (my word)) and the absolutely gorgeous, heart rending finale “Bon Voyage.” Any listener who by this time does not understand why Tim is one of this earth’s greatest ever tenors, is frankly deaf.
Yes there is some controversy over this album, ignore it, the greatest art we have in this world is marred by controversy, and this is no exception. But, it does mark the point where Tim leaves the band he had started way back in the 70’s, just after Conflicting Emotions, the band’s finest hour.
Neil bats “clean up” in 1984 with a collection of songs that were B-sides (“Kia Kaha (Ever Be Strong)”), or were destined for the first Crowded House release (“I Walk Away”). “This Is Massive” is credited to new drummer, and future CH skins maestro Paul Hester. Titled See Ya ‘Round the final album caused more than a few dry eyes to tear up, as it represented the Enz of an era (I can’t help myself). It’s a great album in it’s own right, and while Neil was reportedly uncomfortable going it alone as to Finn family members, it does not show in the results. Tim returned for an “Enz With A Bang” tour, an Australasian outing that once again missed the UK, Europe, and North America – Tim sings his first solo hit, “Fraction Too Much Friction” as part of the long set list and over and out it was. The live album taken from the tour is fantastic.
As fair readers will know, to round out the period from 1977-1987, Tim released his second solo album, the masterwork Big Canoe in 1986 and Neil released the first Crowded House album also in 1986. It’s important to state here clearly that Tim’s Big Canoe is a critically overlooked work — it’s at once accessible, complex, multi-layered music that has to be heard on a proper stereo, hopefully with a small bit of dance floor, waiting near by.
The rest is history, including reunions, Tim joining the House for Woodface (1991) and the Finn brothers very special first album together and alone, Finn (1995).
So many of my friends who were drunk on the elixir of “prog rock” did not “get” Split Enz, while I frankly and gladly left them in the dust listening as they did to 80s era Yes/Genesis. What a loss for them! How an album like Time and Tide could only make it to 58 on the U.S. Billboard charts and penultimate album Conflicting Emotions lagging at 137 shows just how clueless we were in the states as to this legendary band. I blame, in part, Mushroom records, and the unfair fate of so many of our greatest artists. Nonetheless these men went on to great success and all is well in our very very small world (it’s not a very big house for a large family!).
Fair readers, this is seriously awesome music you need to hear – again as fresh today as the day it was released. I was privileged to see the band, in the gym of Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo – for the Waiata tour — an amazingly fun, artful show that sold me forever on this important, influential band. Check it out, along with Tim’s and Neil’s post 1984 work, along with the rest of the individual band members, who together and apart continued to labor in relative obscurity.
My next book will be about the era from 1977-1987 when music changed for the better and new heroes were born. The intro will expose the “glam” and “quirky rock” phase of the 1970’s, which ran from approximately 1972 – 1977. During that time as fair readers will know, we loved the Bowie, the New York Dolls, Roxy Music, T-Rex, and… wait for it…. Split Enz, the Beatles from “down under.”
As we learned in part I, Split Enz was formed by singer/songwriter Tim Finn, in 1973, along with Phil Judd (guitars). Tim’s younger brother Neil, joined the band, for their 1977 album Dizrythmia. While punk is raging in Britain (Sex Pistols) and pop-punk in the states (Ramones), Split Enz was still recording decidedly-not-punk music, while making quiet preparations to draw the world into their loving circle.
The band, now a bit more honed, recorded and released their final album from the formative years, Frenzy (1979). By now, punk has splintered into a dozen branches of far more interesting music, goth, ska, Burundi/jungle/island themed rock, and…”the” new wave. Standout track “I See Red” leads to the Split Enz 1980’s work, refining and honing what it means to be an “art rock” band, sometimes almost “prog rock” yet be danceable, fun, and truly what we came to call the “new wave.”
Indeed 1980’s True Colors was a complete revelation. Less makeup, soon to be none little circus atmosphere, save stage craft and coordinated brightly colored suits (classy yeah!) just serious new wave music designed perfectly to make everyone love the Enz, and love them us smart ones did. Kicking off with their first big hit “I Got You” a Neil Finn composition and lead vocal, an ANZ #1, this was now music to be reckoned with. Add to that, follow up Tim Finn rocker “Shark Attack” and you are talking one fine album! Now take the standout ballad, “I Hope I Never”- if you can really, really listen to those lyrics, and Tim’s yearning, soulful voice singing,…
“I hope I never, I hope I never have to seeeeeeee you again”
…and not wrest a tear from your eye, you are, as I like to joke to non-criers frequently, “made of stone.” It’s one of the most beautiful songs of the 1980’s and it’s important to note, because by this point keys player Eddie Raynor who graces this one with synth strings and amazing grand piano, is really giving the 70’s proggers a run. Really. Tim kicks off “side 2” with “Nobody Takes Me Seriously” indeed. Neil “fights back” with “Missing Person” sung together with Tim, initially intended to be the first single (really?). Now, spin the next one, and to me the one that shows how ready this band is for stardom. “Poor Boy” is another Tim Finn gem – take the bass/drum sync of Nigel and Malcolm, expertly pinning down the track on the bottom end, the spacy-synth – “she speaks to me with ultra-high frequency” and Neil’s tightly wound guitar licks…. Gonna listen till I grow old, for sure, yes, please – this music stands the test of time. Those of you who know these songs can follow this chain of thought, this unadulterated affection for the band. The rest of you hit the Spotify, Apple Music, or disks and study up!
It’s tempting to categorize 1981’s Corroboree/Waiata as a sequel to True Colors. Not so. Here is the track list of the most important songs – can you even believe the first “side” of the LP is so perfectly arranged, and “side 2” does not, in any way let up? It may be their most perfect “non proggy” album, refining as it did the definition of new wave music, for the (much much) better.
All songs written by Tim Finn, except where noted. Side one:
Just “Hard Act” “One Step” and “I Don’t Wanna Dance” would make a successful album. The third is the most new wave of the new wavers, so danceable, so much vibrato, so much tenor/falsetto – Neil’s guitar, Eddies synth patch, bass/drums all building the story of the boy who is too het to dance, without his sweetheart. On record, this is now one unbelievably great band. Follow up tracks “Iris” “Wail” (not my favorite) “Clumsy” complete side 1. Side two cracks open with “History” then “Walking” later “Ghost Girl” which is better than it has any possible right to be – are you kidding? “Don’t get too close boys to the ghost girl, she’s already haunting you” the clever lyrics seem so easy, so natural for them, both brothers always and to this day make it sound so easy – but just try to turn a simple phrase like that with just the right musical backdrop – art indeed.
So many of my progger friends just did not get this music, while I frankly and gladly left them in the dust listening to 80s era Yes/Genesis. What a loss for them.
So fair readers, this is seriously awesome music you need to hear – again as fresh today as the day it was released. And, it was the first and only time I was privileged to see the band, in the gym of Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo – an amazing fun, artful show that sold me forever on this important, influential band. I remember the band in good spirits, “talking the piss” out of each other, Tim doing push ups, Neil generally appearing a bit more dignified, and all of the musicianship being plainly stellar, with Eddie standing out even live with those amazing ivories. Check it out. Part III soon.
My next book Rockin’ Fog City, will be about the era from 1977-1987 when music changed for the better, we danced a lot more, and new heroes were born. The intro will expose the “glam” and “quirky rock” phase of the 1970’s, which ran from approximately 1972 – 1977, leading directly to the decade that followed. During that time as fair readers will know, we loved the Bowie, the New York Dolls, Roxy Music, T-Rex, and… wait for it…. Split Enz, the Beatles from “down under.”
Split Enz was formed by singer/songwriter Tim Finn, in 1973, along with Phil Judd (guitars). They released a couple of albums with Tim and Paul at the helm, The band in costume, makeup and with Tim in front, the voice of an tenor angel, and moves a-quirky, all of which accented the music. Sometimes called “art rock” sometimes alternative, with elements of vaudeville, Split Enz of that early era was a strange brew of “music hall”, “performance art”, and just-plain-fun music, making them maybe the earliest progenitors of what became “new wave” music. As smart music lovers know, in 1977, Tim’s younger brother Neil, joined the band, and history was made.
Split Enz released their first album Mental Notes in 1975, and Second Thoughts in 1976, Recorded in London, their second effort is the first really listenable Enz album in this writer’s humble opinion. The record included several reworked songs from their debut, and some new bits. Contained in the result is a lot of what made this band great and what also makes anything the Finn brothers have done since, exceptional. Check out “Sweet Dreams” from that album for evidence of their supremacy. Check out the cast members – Ti
m & Phil, joined by Jonathan Chunn (bass), Noel Crombie (percussion), Emlyn Crowther (drums), Robert Fillies (Sax/Trumpet), maestro Edward Rayner (keys) and assorted luminaries. Get this all, who engineered this album… Rhett Davies (Supertramp anyone?), and who produced it… none other than Roxy Music guitarist Phil
Manzanera! The Enz had opened for Roxy Music on their first Australian tour, and had decamped from New Zealand to Australia to build their fan base. Phil was intrigued, and arranged their travel to London to record this gem. Second Thoughts were thunk, and the group’s fortunes grew from there.
Enter younger brother Neil Finn in 1977 for follow up Dizrythmia (1977). Anyone ever have “jet lag” will get the title’s reference and applicability to the band’s experience at the time. At first, Neil plays into the vaudeville, circus atmosphere. Phil & Mike are there but abut to be gone from the band, as Neil takes over on guitar, and new permanent member Nigel Griggs on bass. They have the first “bigger” hit, “My Mistake.” While punk is raging in Britain (Sex Pistols) and pop-punk in the states (Ramones), Split Enz was making quiet preparations to draw us into their loving circle.
Fast forward if you must to the 6 minute mark of this video, though who does not have 6 minutes to watch the whole thing? At 6 minutes, Eddie takes center stage musically, features his amazingly beautiful grand piano chops, as Tim sings, “Sunlight, halo, you look wonderful, darling Charlie…, pale and deathly still… for heaven’s sake wake up….Charlie”
Clearly the songwriting partnership of brothers Neil and Tim was kicking into gear, as you notice the touching lyrics, Tim’s delivery, and Neil’s blooming chops on guitar, soon to be co-writer-lead-vocalist as well.
Finally, catch the follow up – forth album Frenzy, the first to really push Neil to the fore, with his growing skills on guitar, vocals, and songwriting. Tim wrote most songs, and there are some gems. “I See Red” indeed!
But, it’s still a bit of a distance to what was to come next, a honed down version of the band, ready to record 4 absolutely exceptional albums, starting with 1980’s masterpiece True Colors and ending with 1983’s absolute masterwork, and unjustly ignored diamond Conflicting Emotions (1983).
If you are not aware of the pedigree and history of Split Enz, you should be, my friends. But… be warned, while the first four albums, covered here, ending with Frenzy, may excite your eyes (see the videos) it might not be candy for your ears. It’s a tad quirky to say the least, while Tim and the band were finding their way to stardom.
Erik Norlander (keyboards), Mark McCrite (guitar, vocals), and Don Schiff are the core members of the progressive rock band Rocket Scientists. The group’s first album was 1993’s Earthbound, – since that time the band has released a number of albums and videos over the years each building on a legacy of quality prog art.
Earlier this year they released a fantastic EP called Traveler on the Supernatural Highways that is part of a broader album coming soon from the band. The EP consists of one long epic instrumental work – the multi-part title track, followed by a smoking hot version of “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” If this recording is any indication, the new album is going to be their best yet.
I spoke to Erik and Mark this August at his home studio in remote Placerville, California just west of Lake Tahoe. We were surrounded by many vintage and modern day keyboards, and started with a question about his use of these instruments:
D: Although you use these vintage keyboards on your own work and on Rocket Scientists albums they all still sound so contemporary – how do you achieve that?
EN: I’m not really a collector – I just like classic keyboard sounds, and the best sounds I can get. If you’re a guitar player, no one is going to think twice about you playing a Les Paul Goldtop- it’s a classic guitar that’s been around, what, 50 years? But then if I play a synthesizer that’s that old or even 20 years old – suddenly I’m “going vintage.” Actually I’m just going for great sounds, and I happen to love the Minimoog and Rhodes sounds from the 70’s and my Hammond organ, which is from 1939.
MM: It’s similar to how many people are into pressing new music on vinyl because they like the sound of vinyl, and it’s not like that’s retro – it just sounds a certain way.
EN: That’s exactly it – I’m not trying to go retro, I’m not trying to sound like Yes in the 70’s – I love that – but I don’t want to do that again – I want to make new music, and when I make new music like the Galactic Collective with all these instruments, I go for sounds that seem current.
There’s an interesting thing about bass sounds I use like the modular Moog bass. I recently got to know Michael Boddicker who was a major session guy in the late 70’s and 80’s – played keys on Michael Jackson’s Thriller – tons of films, he’s on a million things. We were talking about big Moog sounds and listening to some of my stuff and he said, “those great big stereo basses you do – we couldn’t do that in the vinyl days – the lathe wouldn’t cut it with the modulation that low.” That’s why the Moog bass on a lot of those older albums doesn’t sound as big as what I’m doing now.
D: I never hear a shrill keyboard sound out of your stack.
EN: We work hard to not do that!
D: The guitar sounds very fresh and the drum fills are so tight
EN: I think our generation is unique in that late 70’s and 80’s prog music went in a more metal direction, and then you had Dream Theater which is really on the metal side – so that became part of our musical vocabulary. I guess like any artist, you pick what you like and don’t like – we take some and leave out the rest. No Swedish death metal voices here.
MM: Its almost like prog music split up – what retained the “Prog” label was the more metal sounding work, but I hear a lot of progressive influences in things like Radiohead, and for some reason, that hasn’t attracted as much of the prog audience. Crowded House is one of my favorite bands – they are kind of Beatlesque, but they also have a lot of elements you’d hear on old Moody Blues records – I see it as all part of the same legacy.
EN: Greg Stone back in the KLOS days said the first prog album was Sgt. Peppers, and I agree with him. I think it was released the month before I was born!
D: Erik, how much work does it take you now to dial in the sound you want for a solo or for a particular song – a lot of fine-tuning and effort?
EN: The smart-ass answer is it takes 47 years to dial in that sound! I can do it very fast now but only because I’ve spent my whole life learning how this stuff works and how to dial it in. It’s about building up sound libraries – digital instruments and analog instruments like this [points around his studio] and knowing exactly how to set an envelope. Last night we were working on this track, and Mark said I should do some Buchla modular sound effects, and I went directly to get that sound. It wasn’t a question of “let me load up 50GB of sample libraries and go through them all, or let me pull these 10 instruments out of their cases and see what might make this sound.” Fortunately, I go right to it and know how to achieve it.
This instrument here – the Alesis Andromeda – which I helped design – was really the first truly analog polyphonic synthesizer of the modern era. You started with the Minimoog, then we got into instruments you could play polyphonically – instruments like the Prophet 5 and the Yamaha CS-80 and the Oberheim keyboards and that grew and grew until digital became more practical to use, and then you started putting samples into keyboards. Eventually by the mid to late 80’s, analog synthesizers completely fell out of favor. I remember buying 3 Minimoogs from a rental house in LA for $300, which would now be worth 30 times that.
By the end of the 90’s I pushed to make a new modern analog polyphonic synthesizer. The guy who owned Alesis, a guy named Keith Barr who passed away a few years ago, he was the designer of the famous MXR guitar pedals, like the Phase 90 and the Distortion Plus, the little MXR stomp boxes that you see on every guitar player’s pedal board for the last 30 – 40 years, and he was an amazing analog designer. I convinced him to design some analog chips needed so it could fit in a smaller keyboard. So we built this Alesis analogue keyboard – and that’s actually how I met Bob Moog and his daughter Michelle. When I had the green light to do that project, Keith was designing the chips, but then we needed an analog design engineer to design the circuit boards, and I said, “let’s get Bob Moog.” He was already building the new Minimoog Voyager at the time, and I didn’t know about that, so he was not able to work on this project, but he was able to advise from a distance!
D: Erik, when is “the wall” needed as opposed to one of your smaller Moogs?
EN: Functionally there is very little it does that a modern synthesizer can’t do – it is modular by nature which means you can patch it together in ways that you can’t patch a Minimoog or Moog Voyager, but that generally just gets you bizarre sounds – Dr. Who sounds and things like that. For the actual musical tonal sounds, the difference between the modular Moog and any other synthesizer is essentially just quality. There’s something about the discrete electronics and the build quality and the hand wiring and all that voodoo.
There’s multiple voices – multiple sounds at one time that are possible. It has a little sequencer built into it – I can also send it sequences from the computer – more modern stuff which I do all the time, and you can play it by plugging in any keyboard into it via its MIDI interface. I do have the original Gate / CV which was the original way to interface a keyboard to a synthesizer – so even the keyboard was modular – just a controller – telling the synthesizer what note to play and how long to play it. You can do that from a keyboard, from the instrument itself, from a sequencer, so I do all of the above. It’s set up to do 4 sounds or voices at a time. For example, live, I’d have one voice that would be sequenced, one that would be for a lead sound, one for a drone that I would set up. I wired it up so I could trigger the drone from the modular itself – the whole idea of a drone is you have just one note that you hit and you let it go on while you do your spacy intro or break-down. Walking up to this big wall of synthesizers and triggering that sound is fun to do in concert as ultimately it’s a show – you gotta be involved.
You can also see the blinking lights, which I had custom built, which helps tell the audience when that instrument is being used. Otherwise it’s just a big black wall with wires coming out and the sound could seemingly be coming from anything. When I’m going to a keyboard and soloing and you see the lights on the modular come up then suddenly you know I’m playing it – this engages the audience in the instrument.
D: At what point do you decide on an acoustic instrument vs. a keyboard sound? For instance, the horns on “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” are real.
EN: I think there is a time to use electronic instruments and a time to use acoustic. And when you are doing a James Bond song, you have to use real brass! I’ve got great brass sounds – as good as any keyboard player, but when we were going to do that track I thought – I’ve got to have real horns. I worked with these guys on the album Hommage Symphonique, which was a covers album – it has a version of “Conquistador,” (by Procol Harem) and we used them again. When it came time to do “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” there was no question we had to have the horns. Mark had been a fan of that song as long as I’ve known him.
MM: When we did the UFO theme, I was like “dude, another sci-fi song? Can we do a James Bond song this time?” Lana also covered “You Only Live Twice” and “From Russia With Love.” Don’t get me wrong – I love the sci-fi stuff too, but I’ve been a fan of Bond music since I was 5!
D: Mark, for your instruments, do you collect guitars, or focus on a few?
MM: I find myself going more for the acoustic guitars. I have a really old Martin guitar that I love, and a beautiful Guild 12 string – I just got a baritone acoustic Taylor. I went to see David Gilmour for my 40th birthday and was surprised that a lot of the slide guitar on “Breathe” and so many others was him actually playing the lap steel, so I went out and bought one. I was really torn – the collector in me wanted to get and old 50s Rickenbacker or a Supro that looked like a toilet seat but I listened to the newer Chandlers and decided I’d rather have something really clean and really hi-fi.
EN: I bring out my old Guild when Mark flies up here from LA to record. It wasn’t an expensive guitar, but it’s one of those magical ones where everything is just right on it. It’s not pretty, but it sounds great.
MM: I have a 16 year-old daughter who plays in bands, so lately I’ve been buying basses for her – she’s got nicer ones than me now.
D: On the latest Rocket Scientists EP – the long piece “Traveler On the Supernatural Highways” – how did you guys put that track together?
MM: It started out as part of the album we’re working on now and there were pieces of this track that we were trying to figure out as far as what the sequencing would be on the record – and it became obvious that all these instrumental pieces belonged together and so we decided to split it out and get that out there first.
EN: Originally we wrote them as movements of a larger piece, and on the full album we thought about doing “part I” then a vocal song, then “part II” then another vocal and so on – and it just felt jerky going back and forth – it sounded better as one epic symphonic piece. We decided to put it together as one thing. If we put that on a regular album we felt it would overshadow the album or itself be overshadowed – we did not set out to do an EP, but that’s how it came out.
MM: The project started when we realized that 2013 was the 20th anniversary of our first album release so and we wanted to do something to honor that. We decided the best way would be to make a new album… though we kind of missed our deadline! The Supernatural Highways EP and the album we are working to complete now are all one album really – recorded last summer – we just ended up with over 2 hours of music which would not fit on one album. The first bit is out now and the rest will fit on the coming album, which at this stage has no title.
[Ed note: watch the band playing this new track “Traveler on the Supernatural Highways” live, in studio, on You Tube is an excellent way to become more familiar with the band, their style, and immense capability as purveyors of quality prog music.]
D: When is the new album expected?
EN: We plan to release the full album this year not too long from now. Mark is doing the last bit of tracking – some harmony vocals [points out vocal booth.] Then I’m going to mix it – then over to mastering engineer, Maor Applebaum. He’s turned into a major guy – the “new thing” for our kind of music – he’s done Billy Sherwood, the new Yes, some metal – he’s just awesome. He will latch onto something and won’t let it go – saying for example, “Erik I can work with this but you really need to change the mix because the bass is doing this in the wrong way – I can master better if you give me the right mix!” I really appreciate that quality. So, this goes over to him soon.
MM: I’m really excited about the new record!
D: Don Schiff couldn’t be here today – what can you tell me about Don?
EN: Don Schiff is the third element in the Rocket Scientists machine. His style and approach are a big, if not obvious, part of the band’s sound. Don comes from a jazz background. His father was a sax player and band leader, and Don cut his teeth in the music business by being the house bass player at The Las Vegas Hilton … which ironically is where the “Raiding the Rock Vault” show now plays, the Vegas show that featured my old band mates, John Payne and Jay Schellen. Don played with every major act that came through the Hilton including Elvis – yes, really! He learned the vital role of the bass in all different styles of music, how it can make or break the groove. Don also loves classic Motown and what I would call “vintage pop R&B” stuff like Blood, Sweat and Tears and early Chicago. So you inject that approach and influence into a band like Rocket Scientists, and the results are really unique. We’re a prog band that grooves! Oh, and of course Don plays these wonderful, bizarre instruments from genius inventor, Emmett Chapman: the Chapman Stick, the NS/Stick, and now the new “half-fretless” NS/Stick that he is using all over these latest Rocket Scientists recordings. You can see that one in the “Traveler on the Supernatural Highways” video on YouTube. Half of the neck is bright stainless steel, so it’s easy to spot that bass!
D: Another musician on the record who also jumps to the fore is drummer Gregg Bissonette.
EN: Gregg Bissonette is from Detroit, and he started out playing with Maynard Ferguson, the jazz legend, and then from there, he did the natural thing and joined David Lee Roth’s band! Since then he’s just become one of the most in demand drummers in the field.
MM: He did the Supernatural record by Santana as one of his big things – he did the last ELO record and toured it, Joe Satriani, James Taylor, a ton of those Baked Potato gigs, etc.
EN: It’s easier to figure out who he has not played with!
D: Mark, who are some of your influences?
MM: I think of myself as the Adrian Belew type that pulls a prog band in a pop direction – Beatles, David Bowie – Neil Finn is one of my heroes along with Jon Brion, Wendy and Lisa from Prince’s band, and all of Steven Wilson’s stuff. Actually, I met Steven at a festival show Rocket Scientists played with Porcupine Tree back in 1999 and I’ve helped him out with some guitar gear over the years. I’m a big King Crimson and UK fan, along with Sylvian / Fripp. I have 3rd row center seats for the upcoming Crimson show in Los Angeles!
D: Mark, what are you going for in your vocal delivery and how have you developed your style?
MM: I’ve never really tried to articulate it before, but I guess I’m just going for honesty and emotion. It took me a long time to really find my voice. When I first started singing, I equated a great vocal with great pitch, and was pretty disconnected from the lyrics I was singing. When Erik produced the vocals for our first album “Earthbound,” he helped me to focus more on vibe than pitch and helped me to find a much stronger delivery, but something was still missing. While I liked those vocals, I didn’t think they sounded like me. I befriended Kevin Gilbert around that same time and his biggest criticism was that I was over-singing and should consider using way less vibrato. I started experimenting, but really didn’t like where I landed on the “Brutal Architecture” album – the vocals were honest, but they were too stark and I think they were ultimately a bit weak.
After that, I played for a while in a side project called River with an amazing singer named Pat Meyer, and also began playing in Lana Lane’s touring band. They’re both simply born with an amazing natural gift and I learned a lot just from watching them operate. I finally started focusing more on dynamics and tuned into a style I’m comfortable with on the third Rocket Scientists CD “Oblivion Days,” which I have stayed with ever since. I’d like to think I’m borrowing bits from Kevin, Neil Finn, Justin Hayward and Buck Dharma.
D: How do you guys decide when something is going to be Rocket Scientists or an Erik Norlander solo track or something better for Lana Lane?
EN: The answer is astonishingly simple. When Mark and I work together, it’s Rocket Scientists. When we do a Lana Lane album, it’s very vocally oriented and centered around Lana. We write the songs that way, and create the production that way. My solo stuff is really just me – writing and arranging by myself. The other musicians are almost session musicians.
MM: I think it’s also a mindset – you think about it differently when you are creating for another medium or a different band. I’ve written a lot of things for Lana, in general I always have an idea of what the final product is going to sound like. By imagining her singing it in my head, the writing just goes a certain way.
The new EP has been out now through the summer and comes highly recommended. Again, expect an album shortly that will be the Rocket Scientists best yet, full of the kind of driving, modern progressive music one would expect from these talented musicians. A supernatural highway well worth traveling.
Crowded House came to the Warfield Theater this summer, touring in support of their latest release Intriguer. I have a long history of patronizing all manner of audio, video, and performances from this band, from Neil Finn and Tim Finn, and from their original band, Split Enz, and so am likely to be a bit biased about their capabilities. But to me, almost anything Neil and/or Tim are involved in will always be special as they are basically the Beatles of New Zealand. Personal favorites amongst all their projects over the years include “Conflicting Emotions” from Split Enz, Tim Finn’s self titled third release, and the self titled “Finn Brothers” album. For me, Crowded House’s best work is “Together Alone“, though after a series of listens, the new release “Intriguer” does intrigue – buy it with the DVD which sports the band running through most of the tracks in their home studio live and up close – it’s a wonderful document of a mature, precision band.
At the Warfield, the group was in top form in front of an enthusiastic crowd of fans. New tracks like “Amsterdam” and “Either Side of the World” were standouts during the set, which was neatly comprised of Crowded House staples going back to their first release. For the first time in my experience, they did not include a track from the Enz era, though it was not missed amongst so many favorites from their back catalog. Neil’s voice is remarkable for it’s durability after all these years, and given every group member sings backup, including his wife who lent her voice for one track, the harmonies were lush and heart warming. All in all a great night from a great band fronted by this important artist and entertainer.