PLANET MELLOTRON (Andy Thompson) Mauro Ranchicchio

In a galaxy of websites dedicated to progressive rock, populated by countless reviews of records from all ages, there’s a “planet” whose peculiarity makes it a singular place even from light-years of distance: all of its “inhabitants” share the presence of some Mellotron (or some Chamberlin, his American cousin) in their DNA. Back in the late nineties, an (in)sane passion spurred Englishman Andy Thompson to venture into a careful piece of work that will lead him to analyse on the pages of his website www.planetmellotron.com hundreds of albums belonging to all sorts of musical genres: from the seriousness of Novalis to the sex-appeal of Shakira, with some incursions in the careers of some big names like Kinks or Bee Gees, but more often going deep into the mystery of the most obscure vinyl productions.
Mellotron top-tens, trivia, statistics, interviews to the starring players… with a sprinkling of funny and healthy self-irony.
Not just an enthusiast, Andy is also a competent musician and his own M400 has been hired in the course of the years by many renowned bands, namely Cardiacs, Focus, The Flower Kings, Änglagård, Robert Webb of England fame and ReGenesis.
We had the pleasure to exchange some views with him, as the webmaster of the Planet Mellotron website and as the keyboard-player of Litmus, an appreciated band of dedicated followers of Hawkwind.

Album lists are quite easy to find on the Internet, even some “Mellotron albums” lists. But reviewing with detail all records containing even the tiniest trace of that sound is a crazy task and a titanic venture. Where did that idea come from? And how much time did it take in its first drafting?

My original interest was triggered by a short list I was shown the first time I took my Mellotron up to Martin and John at Streetly Electronics, in 1993. When I first hooked up to the Internet (1997), I quickly found the considerably longer list on Dave Kean's site (www.mellotron.com), and without meaning to say the wrong thing, I thought I could do a more accurate job! The original site consisted chiefly of an early version of the albums list, written by a friend of mine, as I had no HTML skills at the time. Collating the information probably took a couple of years, and he took a month or two to write it. I later completely rewrote the site and started adding reviews, which are now the site's most popular feature.

Do you receive any mail from artists listed on Planet Mellotron website? Do you have any amusing stories or funny anecdotes to tell us?

I've had many artists write to me, with some of whom I have kept up a correspondence. No specific anecdotes spring to mind from e-mails I've been sent, although I've been told a few good stories by current- or ex-'Tron players I've met, the best of which is Martin Orford's story about catching a roadie bumping his M400 down a flight of concrete steps, hoping he wouldn't be caught...

Virtual software instruments and patches are highly developed these days, especially for the emulation of glorious analogue sounds. Was it a difficult task to tell the authentic Mellotron from the various M-Tron or Sampletank sources? Did you ever get fooled in the process?

It's become increasingly difficult to differentiate between samples and the 'real thing' (an ironic term to use for the world's first sample player...), and sad to say, I am frequently fooled by increasingly sophisticated sample use. The giveaway is that the samples usually sound too 'perfect' - all the grit has been ironed out of them, they're too clean and in tune! Saying that, it's extremely difficult to tell when they're hidden in the mix, although solo parts are easier to spot. It's getting to the point where I may have to put all new releases into quarantine (!) until/if I can confirm their veracity. Does it matter? Probably only to me.

Nowadays, musicians who persevere carrying a real Mellotron onstage are sometimes mocked at by some colleagues of theirs (see Martin Orford) who believe that sampling keyboards can fully take the place of the real one. What’s your opinion on this topic?

Rather predictably, given the nature of my site, I invariably applaud anyone brave enough to use a real Mellotron on stage these days. Of course sampled Mellotron sounds can't genuinely replace the real thing, any more than amplifier modelling sounds like real valves. They can fool the ear to an extent, but the overall effect is far too clinical, and loses the 'dirt' that live rock music needs. Saying that, for many bands it's the only way they're going to be able to use those sounds live, even if they own a real Mellotron, but please don't try to claim they're as good as the real thing, never mind superior.

Which are the mellotronic moments that made you fall in love with the instrument? And which ones do you regard as the most remarkable in respect to innovative use or fantasy of the performer?

It's difficult to say when I first 'fell for' the Mellotron's sound; I suppose obvious early examples for me include:

Led Zeppelin: The Rain Song (live)
Hawkwind: Assault and Battery
Yes: And You and I
Rush: Tears
Mahogany Rush: I'm Going Away
Limelight: Man of Colours
Pallas: The Ripper (live)

I didn't actually discover Genesis and King Crimson until later, by which time I was looking to buy a Mellotron myself. As for the most 'remarkable' performances, I really have to quote some of the 'usual suspects', including:

Genesis: Watcher of the Skies (live)/Dancing With the Moonlit Knight/Eleventh Earl of Mar etc.
King Crimson: The Court of the Crimson King/Starless/Mars (live) etc.
England: Three Piece Suite
SFF: Pictures
Sebastian Hardie: Four Moments
Änglagård: anything

What’s the added value of Mellotron strings compared to generic string machines (the ones often preferred by German bands from the seventies: Solina, Logan, Eminent, etc.)?

The Mellotron string sound is difficult to describe - the nearest I can get is to say it has an 'edge' to it with which string synths can't even hope to compete. Of course, it sounds more like real strings than a synth, although it's harder to play fast; a good compromise is to use both for different effects. I have no problem with string synths, vastly preferring them to later approximations, but with a handful of exceptions (notably Be-Bop Deluxe, for some reason), I'd always rather hear a Mellotron.

Analogue synthesizers and Mellotrons are often referred to as “unstable” and “primitive” instruments. Yet they’re living a second youth since the nineties, with worldwide acclaimed bands using it extensively (at least on record). The same can be said about the Theremin. Radiohead even toyed with the pioneeristic Ondes Martenot. How come vintage technology has become so fashionable?

I don't think I have any better answer to this than you; my theory is that it's a reaction to the squeaky-clean '80s and their horrible production values, when the more 'artificial' a producer could make a record sound, the better. People eventually tired of that sound, and started remembering how good the older instruments sounded, so their use (and prices) rose. Much as I hate to admit it, the dance scene helped, as musicians and producers discovered the raw power many analogue synths could produce.

Don’t you think that classic Mellotron sounds (strings, choir) as well as other period instruments (Moog, Rhodes electric piano…) are an obvious and immediate nod to some retro attitude of the artist? Can you still be considered up-to-date once you have tamed the beast? Or are you doomed as a vintage-head for the rest of your life?

Probably! Then again, older keyboards (or at least their sounds) are currently so ubiquitous that it's difficult to find a modern pop or rock record that doesn't use them, thus hopefully removing any stigma that may be attached to their use.

I think I’m not mistaking by saying you’re quite a loyal follower of Italian progressive rock. What are your favourite Italian records from the seventies and which prog bands do you appreciate today?

Although they're a rather predictable choice, the first few PFM albums are probably the classic Italian albums, along with records by Banco, Le Orme, Osanna and the lesser-known Museo Rosenbach and Celeste.

Of today's crop of prog outfits, Spock's Beard started out well, and Echolyn are still making good music. The early-'90s Swedish scene produced some phenomenal music (Änglagård, Anekdoten, Landberk) and Norway has some excellent current outfits including White Willow and the ridiculously-named Wobbler. Sphere3 and Galahad, who have grown out of their neo-prog roots, are the best UK bands at the moment, and there are several decent Italian bands, notably Finisterre and their various offshoots. There are plenty of other good bands around, often releasing music on their own labels, but no-one who really makes me sit up and take notice.

In July 2001 you joined (as a keyboard player) space-rock band Litmus, whose 2004 album “You Are Here” can boast many good reviews from the specialized press (even “Saint” Julian Cope seems to rave about it!). Can you describe the musical influences of the band members? Do you really haul your Mellotron onstage?

April, actually. Our website gives some idea of various members' influences; suffice to say, we tend to like a wide variety of stuff, often with little crossover between members. Musical styles appreciated include space rock (of course), various forms of metal/hard rock, prog, psych, classical (various eras), jazz, blues, industrial and techno/electronica.

I've occasionally used my Mellotron live, principally on our short tour with Julian a year ago, and the odd local date when I can a) get it to the venue without too much grief and b) get it on stage. I usually make do with samples (see above...), but they never feel or sound right. However, they weigh next to nothing and never break down, although, in fairness, my M400 has behaved impeccably the few times I've used it. Given the choice/budget/road crew, I'd always rather use the real thing, along with various other pieces of analogue gear (some of which I stubbornly use anyway), but back in the real world, compromises usually have to be made.