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By: Dave Cooper
One of the bands that essentially re-invented progressive rock in the mid 1990s, California-based Spock’s Beard have celebrating the 20th anniversary of the release of their classic 1995 debut, The Light. Having overcome numerous hurdles and setbacks, the band are as indefatigable as ever, and are about to release their 12th studio album, The Oblivion Particle. Dave Cooper spoke to bassist Dave Meros to look back over the band’s impressive career and to see what the future holds for the much loved and critically acclaimed band.
(((o))): The Oblivion Particle marks your 12 studio album, and 2015 is the 20th anniversary of the release of your first album, The Light. Did you ever imagine that Spock’s Beard would still be making records after all this time?
Dave: When The Light was recorded we were just having fun and never thought we’d really be successful enough to keep going past that one album, but after a while we figured out we were a real band and we could keep going. We never really thought about how long the whole thing would continue, but I think that’s the secret to our longevity. If we had thought that we need to be at certain points in album sales and live shows by a certain time we would have quit long ago.
(((o))): I can only imagine that making new records gets harder every time as you try not to repeat yourself. The Oblivion Particle manages to be ‘classic Beard’ whilst still incorporating new sounds and influences. Was there a deliberate attempt to try different things, or do these new influences filter in naturally?
Dave: We actually have the opposite problem. It’s much easier to try all kinds of crazy things. It’s harder for us to write songs that sound like Spock’s Beard. We’d love to be able to branch out and record some totally different styles, perhaps not even close to being prog rock, and we have done some of that in the past, but every time we try that we get slapped down for it by the press and also by some of our less tolerant fans, so another big part of our longevity is figuring out what exactly Spock’s Beard is and not getting too far away from that.
(((o))): Is there ever any sense that something the band or the individuals that make up the band come up with is not something the band could use? Have the band ever come up with anything that you really liked that you felt wasn’t appropriate for the band?
Dave: Yes, that happens with every album. On an album that has let’s say 10 tracks on it, there can be maybe 14 or 15 songs at the beginning. Some of them might be really good but not right for the album. It could be that they are just not “prog” enough, or too much of a different style, or they could be great prog songs, but just not compatible with the rest of the songs. In that case we’d just save it and maybe it would work on the next album with a few changes.
The only album where we put in almost everything that was submitted was our self-titled album, the 9th one. We figured that we’d put it all out there and if somebody didn’t like a particular track they could just hit the “Next Track” button, but doing that really worked against us. There was a lot of great material on that album, but it got a lot of bad reviews. I think that album would have been received a lot more positively if we had been more selective with our track selection.
Conversely, Brief Nocturnes could have been an album that was not as well received as it was if we had chosen different songs and a different song sequence. We’ve finally learned to include our record company president Thomas Waber into these discussions and to trust his judgement because he has a great talent in hearing what people will probably like the best. We, as the band, are too “inside” of it to really be objective.
(((o))): It seems life is getting harder and harder for truly independent musicians; it must have been really difficult at times to keep the Spock’s Beard flag flying. Has there ever been a point where the band were close to calling it a day?
Dave: Oddly enough, no. Maybe we’re just a bunch of fools, but we’ve just kept going without really thinking about it. When you think about it, we probably should have broken up after Neal [Morse] left. I mean, who would be foolish enough to think they can just plow ahead like nothing is wrong when the guy that wrote ALL the songs, sang lead, and played keyboards and guitar leaves? The answer to that question is: Spock’s Beard! ha ha!
But seriously, we never really thought about hanging it up, but the music industry is getting to a point now where if things get worse it will be too difficult to continue in the way that we currently work. We’ve never really made a lot of money with Spock’s Beard, but we’ve made enough money to be able to afford to record in a nice studio, buy a couple pizzas for rehearsal, and if we lose a little money here and there on some live shows it doesn’t kill us, but things are changing. It’s getting more difficult to meet our expenses, and if it gets any worse we will have to stop touring except for a few one-off shows here and there, record albums at our home studios, and basically turn into a hobby band. I don’t know if we’d be willing to do that. The thought of that does not excite me.
(((o))): Spock’s Beard were one of a handful of bands, alongside Dream Theater and a few others, that emerged in the mid-90s that really championed progressive rock. 20 years on, in a sense you guys are almost a ‘legacy’ act. How do you feel the genre has developed since?
Dave: The genre is very crowded at the moment. There are a LOT of bands… a lot of good ones, a few great ones, a lot of bad ones. It’s hard to rise above the pack these days, everybody is going for a slice of a fairly small pie. I think prog has gotten a lot “darker” sounding in the last few years as well. The bands that seem to be selling well and have the largest live audiences are the darker bands. I don’t really have a term for it. There probably is a term for it that I don’t know, I call it “goth prog”.
(((o))): This is your second album with Enchant’s Ted Leonard on vocals, following the departure of Nick D’Virgilio following the release of your tenth album. Was Ted always in your mind as possible replacement? With a couple of records under your belts now, what do you feel Ted has brought to the band?
Dave: We’ve known Ted since we first toured with Enchant in 1999. We did another tour with Enchant a few years later, and I’m actually in a cover band with Ted now. So we loved him then and have kept in touch casually over the years, and when Nick left Ted’s name came up and we all just said “yes, let’s ask him”. There was really no discussion, it was a natural choice, and he’s proven to fit in with Spock’s Beard even better than we thought he would. The transition was absolutely painless and effortless. Besides his singing abilities, he is also quite good on guitar, and a great songwriter, so what more could we ask for?
(((o))): There’s always talk about a ‘reunion’ with original vocalist/co-founder Neal Morse, and even after his departure he’s contributed songs to the band. Do you ever envisage this coming to pass? Or is there a perception that perhaps the nostalgia engendered might be a backward step?
Dave: There are small reunions that happen occasionally, where Neal will come up and do a couple songs with us, and those times are really fun and really special to us, and I love when that happens. But I think we’ve both gone too far in our own directions to go back to 2003.
(((o))): Drummer Jimmy Keegan contributes a lead vocal to the new album, echoing Nick’s vocal contributions to the band. Indeed Spock’s Beard has always been very strong in the vocal department. Is this something that you feel is key to the band’s sound?
Dave: That has certainly been the thing that a lot of people identify us with, especially when we do those crazy Gentle Giant counterpart vocal things. We’ve always been very lucky to have multiple good singers in the band. To give you an idea about vocal depth in Spock’s Beard, in some bands that I have been in I’d be one of the two primary background vocalists, but in Spock’s I’m a distant #4.
(((o))): You’ve always been a very strong live act: the sheer enthusiasm for what you do just radiates from you all when you’re on stage. Given the choice, do you prefer studio work or live work? Or do you think they’re both essential parts of being in a band?
Dave: They are both essential. I love the control that studio playing gives, and of course it’s a permanent record of what you did, but live playing is definitely more fun and we get immediate feedback from an audience. Both are essential. I think recording ultimately is more important though. We can only play for a limited number of people for a limited number of years, but recording creates a permanent record, and we can also make a record sound like what we’re hearing in our heads as opposed to playing a live show where we are constrained by room acoustics, the sound system, the number of instruments we can have with us and play at one time, etc.
(((o))): Returning to the subject of finances: touring overseas must be incredibly difficult for you, especially given the sheer quantity of Ryo’s gear! Do you ever feel it’s *too* difficult? Is there a particularly fine line between satisfying an audience and doing things you know the band won’t profit from?
Dave: Touring overseas is much easier than touring in North America. The infrastructure in most of Europe is very compatible with bands of our popularity (200 – 500 capacity venues). And it seems like things are condensed geographically enough to where we can drive from city to city. People are also willing to spend money on tickets more than in the U.S., and I think one reason for that might be the geographical distance that a lot of people in North America would have to travel to see a show. Besides the ticket costs there would also be hotel and travel expenses, which can be discouraging.
Having said that, Europe is getting harder too. Bands that used to tour once per album aren’t making money on album sales any more, so they are trying to tour two or three times or more for every album, and as a result the market is getting saturated. As a result, attendance per show is going down, the amount of money bands are being offered is going down, it’s all just making it more difficult to break even on a tour.
We never really profited on tours anyway, so the decision is never whether or not to include things that will reduce our profit, our decisions are based entirely on how we can avoid losing money. And to answer your question, yes, there will definitely be a time when it just becomes too difficult to keep going if things continue in the direction that they’ve been going for the last few years.
(((o))): Some of the band’s sterner critics have claimed that you make “regressive rock”: music that’s overly couched in the sound of established/’classic’ prog bands. Personally I think these folks need to get out and get laid, but how would you respond?
Dave: Ha ha! We ALL need to go out and get laid. But you know, everybody has their own opinion. We do what we like. When Neal left and we decided to continue on, we tried updating our sound for the Feel Euphoria album, and the material that everybody liked on that album was the stuff where we weren’t trying to be cutting edge and new sounding, so now we just do what we do.
(((o))): Following up the last question: do you perhaps feel that sometimes in progressive rock there’s more emphasis on creating something that really pushes the envelope than there is on writing from the heart and creating something less contrived?
Dave: YES! That’s my main complaint about prog rock, and that’s why I don’t listen to too much of it. A lot of it is all about being faster, more bombastic, weirder and more complex. More about the “Olympic” competitive qualities of it and less about just good songs. I personally am not moved by how fast somebody can play or how well they can solo over 13/8 in Phrygian mode. I mean, yes, I’m impressed by the talent of course, but to me that’s a physical and mental accomplishment, not a musical one. I vastly prefer a song that I can connect with on an emotional level. It doesn’t even have to be some deep dark complex emotion either, it can be as simple as provoking a feeling of simple happiness or fun, or sorrow and longing, and that feeling can come from the music just as much as coming from the lyrics. Some prog actually does that. I think that Spock’s succeeds in doing that from time to time.
(((o))): Looking back over your past records, and indeed the band’s 20 years recording and performing, do you have any regrets? Is there anything that you wish you’d done differently?
Dave: Well, like I said above, I think we should have produced our self-titled album to be more cohesive, maybe even have done that a little on Octane as well. I really think we ruined SB9 by not making the tough decisions on song choice and song sequence, which is a shame. But whatever… I really don’t think in the big picture that would have made a huge difference for us, it’s just a personal regret. I would have also produced ‘Ghosts Of Autumn’ differently. I wasn’t in the studio when all the overdubs were done and it still turned out really nice, but I think it could have been much better with a slightly different focus and instrumentation.
Other than that, I don’t know what I would have changed; it’s all been a big mystery to me anyway so I have no idea what would have worked better for us. I guess my main regret is that we weren’t around in the heyday of prog music, that would have been awesome.
(((o))): If you had one piece of advice for budding musicians, what would it be?
Dave: Should I say it? It’s depressing, but OK, here goes – this is the worst time to be a professional musician in the history of the modern music industry, and there is no question in my mind that it’s only going to get worse. So I’d say go for it, but do it as a hobby, have a back up plan for your life. Maybe you’ll be one of the lucky ones that can be a career musician, and if so, fantastic, but if not, you’ll be able to have a decent fulfilling life doing something else, and music will always remain something that you love and that is really enjoyable to you, instead of something that wore you down.
(((o))): What’s your favourite track from the new album, and why? Are you especially looking forward to playing certain tracks live?
Dave: I really love ‘Tides Of Time’ because it is SO Spock’s Beard-ish. Ha ha! I also love ‘To Be Free Again’ because there are sections of that song that are simply gigantic. That’s the one I think I’ll enjoy playing live the most just because of those huge parts, but I can also see ‘Minion’ and ‘Hell’s Not Enough’ being really fun to play live because they are structured in such a way as to really translate well on stage.
(((o))): If someone asked you which Spock’s Beard album would make the best introduction to the band for a new listener, which one would you pick?
Dave: I would say Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep, or if they have a little more progressive tendencies maybe X or this new one The Oblivion Particle. I would say V as well, but if we’re trying to grow a new fan who continues on with us, then I would steer him towards the newer material because that is who we are now.
(((o))): Much has been made of the necessity for many musicians – even musicians that have been working with bands for some time – to have a ‘day job’ to fall back on. I know some of you guys are in that situation: how much of a challenge is it to maintain two intense focuses like that? Are there particular advantages/disadvantages?
Dave: It’s difficult to devote a lot of time to the band if you have a full time job and a family, and two other bands going on at the same time. It’s also difficult to mentally focus on all the little stuff that adds up to the greatness of that main band or project.
(((o))): I’m speaking about the people who are doing a day job not as a career but ONLY until their dreams of music can support them… but in today’s music environment if you were trying to make ends meet as a musician exclusively, you would have very little free time to actually write music or practice your instrument. You would also probably have very little money to buy equipment. Most of your time would be playing weird little gigs, trying to promote yourself, selling your music on the internet, giving lessons, etc.
The advantages would be: Having a day job gives you hopefully more money to be able to buy nice equipment. In the case of the musician who tours as a sideman to make money, they would also be home more, which is nice for the family.
(((o))): Rich Mouser has once again produced your new album – and predictably it sounds incredible. Some bands find producers who truly understand their sound and ethos, so much so that they almost become honourary band members. Is it fair to say that Rich fills such a role for you? Does his involvement extend beyond the immediately apparent audio polish?
Dave: Yeah, he’s the guy. If I had my choice of anybody in the world, I would choose Rich. He really does know exactly how to make us sound good. He suggests parts and arrangements and has some really good ideas for making songs better. He also is very good at coaching performances to get the most out of a musician, and he knows what to do to dial in the sound so that it will fit into the mix. He always has been more than just a tracking and mixing engineer.
(((o))): You’ve crowdfunded some of your recent projects, or offered pre-order packages, but The Oblivion Particle has been produced without going down this path. Is there any particular reason for this? Do you feel the crowdfunding model has particular advantages or disadvantages?
Dave: We went to crowd funding once our recording advances from the record label had decreased to a point where we could no longer record a new album the way we are accustomed to recording. So basically we did it out of necessity. It actually worked great for us even though those projects are an immense amount of work. The record label doesn’t really like bands to do that however since it obviously cannibalizes a percentage of sales that they could otherwise count on and it also releases the album before they release it, so it takes away some of their thunder on release day. So after a couple crowd funding financed records, they offered us an advance that was just enough to forego the crowd funding campaign and we decided to go with that to see if it really made a difference in sales or momentum… or not.
(((o))): You’ve got European dates coming up: how do the European shows compare with the shows at home in the US? Is there a very different feel to them, and do you approach them differently at all?
Dave: The actual shows are about the same once we get on stage, it’s the economy and logistics of the whole thing that is really different. We can’t afford to tour in the U.S. but we CAN afford to tour Europe/UK. We used to try to tour in the U.S. but we lost a lot of money each time and we can’t really do that any more, mainly because of the aforementioned decrease in money from the record label and also the atrophy of the music industry in general.
(((o))): Is there anything you’d like to add?
Dave: I think I’ve said enough for two people. Ha ha. But thanks for the interview. And for the readers, please buy the album and come and see us on tour in September… and buy a t-shirt!