Thursday, 26 January 2012

An interview with Mars Hollow

Mars Hollow's eponymous debut album made many people's top ten prog rock releases of 2010, but my own radioactive Yes fan senses started tingling when they announced that Billy Sherwood would be producing their second album, The World in Front of Me. Released 2011, the album has again brought the band critical acclaim and they have since continued the relationship with Sherwood, opening for CIRCA: live in September and October 2011.

The band have recently been highlighted by Classic Rock Presents… Prog as an upcoming band. This year, they plan to release their first DVD, "Live at RoSFest 2011" (preview available here), are playing further dates and are working towards a third album.

The band consists of John Baker (guitar, lead vocals), Kerry Chicoine (bass, lead vocals), Jerry Beller (drums, vocals) and Steve Mauk (keyboards, vocals). Kerry, a regular at ProgressiveEars.com, kindly organised the following interview with the band in October 2011.

You've each had bands before Mars Hollow, often far from the progressive rock sound of Mars Hollow. [You can read the band members’ biographies on their website here.] So what was the impetus for Mars Hollow, for this sound, at this point in your careers?    

Jerry Beller: I have been in Prog rock bands or projects before but for certain parts of my career I decided to do Hard Rock or Metal or Fusion... I have always loved Prog and I got the right three other guys together when I formed this band and the time was right... and since I just got off of a project that I was doing with Ryo Okumoto I thought that it would be great to get a Progressive project together and see what happens.

Kerry Chicoine: For me, personally, ever since I heard Mike Keneally's music – in the year 2000AD – my mind has been reaching for something beyond the standard power-pop stuff I love so much. I still love a good pop song but as I've gotten older and been exposed to more detail-oriented music, naturally I've been drawn towards more unconventional song structures. Having spent some time playing prog-rock alongside Jerry Beller in Ryo Okumoto's band, I knew I'd found a rhythmic soul-mate so when Ryo's project folded, it was only natural Jerry and I get something going. In a nutshell, Mars Hollow is the result.

John Baker: After a long succession of my own bands I was looking for some situation where I could just write and play without the sole leadership responsibility. At first I sought out bands that needed some "colorful" guitar playing and backing vocals. I saw a prog ad and thought "why not try that again" revisit my youth and so forth. When I thought about it, I realized prog, especially symphonic prog had all the aspects of what I was looking for.

Steve Mauk: I have always loved progressive rock and my first band was playing crazy complex prog back in the 70's. As that genre fell out of popularity I got sidetracked and wrote and played pop and rock for years and years. But I often felt unchallenged, and started wondering what it would be like to play that kind of music again. When I saw a classified ad looking for a progressive rock keyboard player I got really exciting thinking about the possibilities. That situation did not pan out, but right after I saw Jerry's ad and that led to the foundation of Mars Hollow.

Kerry and Jerry, you two had a spell together in Endless Enigma, an ELP tribute band. There is occasionally some scepticism about former tribute band members among fans, with controversial examples like BenoƮt David joining Yes, and Arnel Pineda in Journey. You've also got Johnny Bruhns and Scott Connor in CIRCA: both coming from tribute bands. How does the experience in Endless Enigma impact on your playing today?

Kerry: While I've never really been interested in playing in a tribute band, when the Endless Enigma opportunity arose I was compelled to take it because ELP are my all-time favorite band, ever. I looked at it as a challenge – I was singing as well as playing bass, lead guitar and synth pedals. Plus, I loved the music and I wanted to really learn that stuff – it's a blast to play. I guess the experience impacted my playing by having to learn all of that complicated material – it made me a better musician having learned some of their classic pieces, and helped me gain some insight as to Greg Lake's amazing bass playing as well as Keith Emerson's fantastic sense of composition. I really love ELP and I'm sorry Endless Enigma didn't work out; here's a video of us performing "KarnEvil 9 First Impression Part Two".

Jerry: The ELP tribute was just a side project for me. I have always played in original bands and thought that it would be a fitting Tribute to my Prog Heroes but it was not something that I did on a regular basis and that project was on and off anyway. Also my influences were from those early prog drummers like Carl Palmer but he is not the only one... Barrymore Barlow, Neil Peart, Alan White, Mike Portnoy, Curt Cress, Bill Bruford and so on... so it did not effect the way I play in this band just doing what I normally do.

Your debut album was produced by Ronan Chris Murphy. Can you tell me what it was like working with him?

Kerry: I met Ronan at a party at least 10 years ago and we kept in touch. When Mars Hollow recorded some early demos, I sent them to Ronan and he was agreeable to helping us with our first album. We knew he'd worked with guys like Mike Keneally, Terry Bozzio, Tony Levin, Robert Fripp, Willie Otero – monster chops kinda guys – so we thought he'd be a cool producer. We feel very lucky to have had him on our team.

The guy was great to work with – easy going, great ideas for editing songs, an awesome engineer/technician, you name it. He really blew us away with his mixes; the guy has fantastic ears and his mixes are integral to how the songs ended up coming across. If anyone out there reading this is looking for a great producer, definitely contact Ronan.

Jerry: Very relaxed and he did a great job on that first CD it had a great 70's vibe to it. Very cool and a great guy. Also had some great production ideas. Very mellow guy to work with. Nothing but praise to Ronan.

John: He made a few pre-production suggestions based on hearing us at rehearsal and proceeded to capture the vibe of our live thing quite well. I recorded almost all the guitars myself and I know he wishes I hadn't. When he mixed, I know I put him through a whole lot more work than he is used to – so, sorry Ronan. I learned something from Ronan at every step of the process.

Steve: I really enjoyed working with Ronan. He has a fantastic ear and a great enthusiasm for songwriting and recording. He gave us excellent preproduction notes before recording in terms of some of the song structures and arrangements that I think made the record that much better. He also set a very supportive, relaxing vibe in his studio which helped bring out our best performance.

And you decided to work with Billy Sherwood on your latest album. What brought you to Sherwood?

Kerry: I liked the glossy, high-tech sound of the first two CIRCA: albums and thought it would be cool to work with someone of Billy’s stature, so I wrote him via MySpace and he responded immediately. We met the guy, hit it off on a personal level, and then we went off to write the second album and didn’t see him for a year LOL.

Jerry: Well Kerry had some internet conversations with Billy in the past so that was part of the connection, then we posted a video of one of our shows about two years ago and Billy saw it and sends us an e-mail stating that he was interested in working with us and we took him up on his offer. Very cool person to work with. Great production came from the sessions and the CD came off very powerful which is what I wanted on this CD.

John: We were simply exploring the variety out there. We thought "we already made the first record, let's have something different". Kerry lobbied for Billy and we agreed. The amazing thing is that Billy also agreed. I realize now that Billy loves to work with as many bands as time will allow. It doesn't matter to him about the musician's status level.

How would World in Front of Me have sounded differently without Sherwood? What did he bring to the album? 

John: The biggest thing he brought was that the drums sounded bigger and the record as a whole sounded wetter and less analog. Listeners will decide for themselves whether or not they like those differences.

Kerry: Billy is known for creating a certain sound and that's exactly what we wanted for the second album. If anyone else had produced it, it would've sounded nothing like what Billy achieved. Billy definitely has his own thing goin' on and that confidence is one of the things that drew us to him. He knows what he wants and he knows how to get it. That said, Billy definitely took our input very seriously and he truly worked with us so that in the end, we all created the album as one.

Unlike Ronan – who made actual songwriting suggestions here and there – Billy pretty much left the songwriting to us; his main role was in capturing the band performing (the album was largely recorded live), making suggestions for guitar and keyboard patches, making melodic suggestions occasionally, and dialing in a cool bass sound. For the bass, all I said to Billy was, "Plug me into whatever you plug yourself into and work your magic!" He's already got his DW drum kit mic'd up so we knew we'd start laying down tracks FAST.

Sure enough, we finished the basic tracking in five evenings. Billy works so fast and with so much energy; we'd think "That was a bad take" but Billy would say, "No way, check it out, it's awesome!" and sure enough he was right 99.9% of the time.

After the basics were done at Billy's we went off and did some overdubs then turned it all over to Billy for mixing. He did a fantastic job building the mixes from the ground up and we were all smiling when we heard his final versions.

Mars Hollow have only played a fairly small number of concerts. What's the reality of securing live dates for a band like yourselves?

Kerry: We just played our 13th gig – lucky 13! Our first gig ever was in November of 2008, so we've managed to play out about every four months since then, which isn't too bad a schedule all things considered. We've been lucky in that we've been asked to play RoSFest, ProgDay and Mexicali Prog (3 times) so these higher-profile type gigs have definitely helped raise awareness.

Honestly, we can pretty much play Los Angeles any time we like – as long as it's not a Friday or Saturday night LOL. It's like a cattle-call out here and most bands have no problems finding gigs at 10:30PM on a weeknight.

However, we made a conscious decision at the outset that we weren't going to play LA-area gigs on weeknights – it's just too difficult to get people to come out. So we pick and choose our local dates and continue seeking out festivals and other out-of-area opportunities, such as playing Corona thanks to Billy Sherwood and CIRCA:.

We've got some things in the pipeline – preliminary plans if you will – for some touring in 2012 so hopefully we'll at least get another chance to play internationally and also do a string of gigs in the Northeast USA; we'd also love to partner with a couple LA-area bands and do a proper West Coast USA tour. We're always on the prowl for gig opportunities outside of LA.

John: You gotta ask for the opportunity. Don't wait for an invitation without some prompting of your own. We don't have a manager so it's "every band for himself". A bit of aggression is necessary from the bands. We play most of our shows well outside of our home state of California, so travel expenses are the biggest consideration. Shipping gear is a really big hassle and expense and you have to be as prepared as possible to use unfamiliar equipment to produce familiar sounds.

Jerry: Yes, we would like to play more concerts and it is possible. Just need to get in the right situation. Also this type of music is something I think more people would enjoy and should have more media exposure. I think more people would get into it if they know it was around... There is more for your money from this music: it is not just a 3 minute Pop song and I am not bashing Pop. Look, The Beatles had a prog album and their last record had a prog style side to it with songs running into each other. So I think that prog can get big just like all the other types of music that seam to come back around again and again.

Your debut received great reviews, you were heralded as the 'new Spock's Beard' or the 'new Marillion'. So you have these expectations upon you from the prog community. Yet at the same time, receiving more widespread attention beyond prog fans is difficult. How do you feel about how you've been received?

Kerry: "Blown away" pretty much describes how I feel LOL. We've been lucky in that the prog community has largely embraced us as a presence to be acknowledged – those fans are very, very discriminating so to be generally accepted within the community is a huge accomplishment. We're very lucky and very gratified at the reception, please believe.

Honestly, we never set out to win over the prog community; our music – as proggy as it gets sometimes – is, at its core, melodic rock. It's accessible, it's catchy, it's "poppy" for lack of a better word. We make a point to have at least a couple of accessible songs on our albums not because we're "selling out" for a hit single, but because we all love good songs and it breaks up the flow of the longer, proggier pieces.

Although we're very happy with where we've taken the band thus far, we feel there's still a chance (however slim) we might cross-over into the classic rock world, or the melodic rock world, whatever the kids are calling it these days. That's been the goal all along; we feel our music crosses boundaries a lot of "prog" bands might go at lengths to avoid but the point of this whole enterprise is writing good rock songs, and the goal is to get those songs heard.

John: We could not have asked for a better reception from the prog community. Whether any "purist" prog fan wants to admit it or not I'm convinced that we are well received due to a good amount of melodic accessibility. In my opinion, that's the single biggest reason why the pioneers of the progressive rock genre were popular. We cross over into mainstream rock a bit so it's reasonable to think we have a better chance of being accepted outside of prog, but that remains to be seen.

Steve: Incredibly gratified by the response we have received. It has inspired me to really work harder with my sounds and songwriting. When you know there is an audience that appreciates what you are doing, it makes you want to do it better.

Jerry: Greatly received and great reviews all around, oh and by the way we have a lot of fans that are not big Prog fans, but like what they hear due to the Pop that we infuse with the PROG. When we started this project we all decided to infuse Prog with Pop so that we could turn more fans on to this style of music and even though the second CD was a little more intense it still has the POP element in it... just wanted to turn as many people on to PROG as possible. As I said in one of the other questions, PROG is not a criminal on an island somewhere, it is a style of music that is there to enjoy... A lot of fans still go to the big prog shows like Yes, Rush, Genesis, but need to know about the new bands of Prog... that's what needs to happen.

You have your own sound, but your music also harks back to ELP, Yes, Rush and other big name prog bands. How do you balance these influences? For example, I've described the end of "Midnight" [on debut album, Mars Hollow] as sounding like Keith Emerson soloing over Chris Squire. Is that a comment that makes you happy to be compared to the greats, or frustrated that you're being compared to them? 

Kerry: I'm very flattered whenever I hear comparisons between Mars Hollow and the classic bands of the '70s – we all grew up on that music and, face it, the stuff was pretty amazing and we're all heavily influenced by that golden era. Comparisons are inevitable because we're plowing the same fertile fields as the old school guys – long-form rock songwriting mixed with a bit of accessible melodic pop to keep things interesting and fun. We have the advantage of building on that which came before, while the classic bands were really breaking new ground and sowing the seeds for guys like us. We owe them all a huge debt of gratitude for setting the stage.

I personally don't consider the balancing of our influences; we never say, "Ok, that's enough of a Yes vibe, let's move into Gentle Giant territory now", you know? We just write what we write, and we're ruthless editors – our primary goal is to keep the songs moving.

Jerry: It does not make me frustrated. Yes, the influences are there but we don't approach a part like – oh, let's put a Keith Emerson solo part with a Geddy Lee bass line in there. I guess that it is our heroes that are in us, so a little of that comes out... but it is not something that we do on purpose. We try to make everything sound like us... I would rather like being compared to a great player, that makes me feel that all of those years of hard work paid off.

John: It's never frustrating to be compared with the greats. Keith Emerson and Chris Squire were also influenced by their musical greats and I'm pretty sure they were not frustrated if they were ever compared to them. The pattern of influence goes back for as long as people have been making music.

Progressive rock lyrics in the 1970s varied between New Age influences on the one hand and a technophile/science fiction on the other. Musicologist Edward Macan talks about prog as having Apollonian lyrics (philosophical, optimistic, utopian) as opposed to the Dionysian lyrics of heavy metal (primordial, of the senses, ecstatic). Prog in the 21st century is a different affair. Mars Hollow's lyrics are often quite dark, with references to failed relationships. Do you see your lyrics as being 'progressive' as well? Is there a common theme to them?

Kerry: John is the primary lyricist for the band; he's written lyrics for all but two songs. The two songs I wrote lyrics for – "Dawn of Creation" and "In Your Hands" – I was definitely going for a proggy vibe. "Dawn" is spacey and laced with astronomical references, and with "Hands" I was going for a Neal Morse Spock's-era "is it religious or not?" kind of vague spirituality thing. In reality "Hands" is more of a slam on the GW Bush administration LOL – it's actually pretty sarcastic.

Steve: I've always felt that good lyrics are ones that move you emotionally, whatever the genre. John has a definite talent for delivering insightful, soul probing concepts and I think that is one of the strengths of this band that has set us apart.

John: Our lyrics are introspective allegory, based on the human conditions of despair and happiness, longing and fulfillment; not on science fiction or legendary books about wizardry or trolls, etc. That's just the way we do it. It goes along with the fact that we don't have album covers that feature science fantasy artwork. Nothing against any of that, but it's just not for us.

Thanks to the band for agreeing to the interview. Thanks also to 10T Records for copies of the band’s two albums: I heartily recommend both.

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