How can a British album sound Swedish? How can one change completely his music style, achieving an excellent outcome? Thieves' Kitchen completely amazed us with this new album, the outstanding "The Water Road", a superb symphonic Prog opus showing a very elegant British background, with a touch of Scandinavian feeling. Phil Mercy, guitarist of the band, in this nice interview tells us the secrets of success and how he got known Thomas Johnson, keyboardist of Änglagård.
Your music had an extraordinary metamorphosis: not only you changed your style but it seems that in this new shape you manage to express at your best: what do you think about it? What led you to try this new path?
I think each of our four records have progressed on from each other, it's a continuing journey really. A number of changes have happened since we recorded "Shibboleth" in 2003 which have combined to give the impression of quite a leap. Key amongst these has been the contributions of Thomas, both compositionally, arrangement wise, and his exquisite playing. Another major component was a conscious band decision to devote unlimited time and resources to make the best album we possibly could, which culminated in recording at Rob Aubrey's studio in Southampton and Mattias Olsson's studio in Stockholm. We recorded the base tracks for the album as live band performances, something that wasn't technically possible for the band before.
The performances are more impassioned. Amy's vocal performances, in particular, are really emotional. I've been using more amp tone and less effects, Andy's been using fretless, there's Thomas' use of mellotrons and other electro mechanical sound sources and, of course, Mark's been able to use his acoustic kit on album for the first time in TK.
Composition wise, I think The Water Road shows a step towards the symphonic space. There was a definite desire for increased dynamics and texture in the music. We didn't want to lose that element of complexity, or Canterbury like quirkiness, but didn't want it to dominate at the expense of melody. Melody plays a key part in The Water Road.
Your sound seems to be more Swedish than English: is there anything of Scandinavian Prog which impressed you?
Well, I've not really thought about this, but it's probably not that surprising. I guess Änglagård are a key part of what has defined a "Swedish" sound for most people and Thomas was a major part of their sound as he has been in the composition and arrangement of the music on "The Water Road". Having worked a great deal with Thomas, and to a lesser extent with Anna and Mattias, I've been greatly impressed and inspired by their approach to music making. They have a wonderful attention to detail. They have a great awareness of the texture of different instruments, and the emotion that a performance can bring to a piece of music.
As for the cooperation with some former members of Änglagård: what new elements have they brought in your music? How did you get in touch with them?
I'd found myself in somewhat of a paradox at the end of 2004 with Wolfgang Kindl having left the band to return to Germany, as artistically I was really getting into classical stuff, Vaughan Williams and Walton in particular, whereas the band had been reduced to a 4 piece with a guitar dominated sound. I was really getting nowhere and becoming dispirited with the restricted sound palate and nothing good was being written. We were extremely lucky to discover Thomas living in the UK. His playing and approach to composition, dynamics and texture, was perfect for where we all wanted to go. It was Paul (Beecham, who plays oboe and sax on "The Water Road") who discovered using the internet that Thomas was living and working in the UK. Fully aware of his involvement with Änglagård in the 1990's, we were very keen to meet him and see if there was a possibility of working together. We finally managed to contact him and arrange a meeting one evening in a lovely pub in Oxford where it was clear from the start that he was a great guy and that we all had a lot in common. Obviously, Thomas is still in contact with both Mattias and Anna and we arranged to record both the vintage keyboards (Mellotron, Optigan etc) and Anna's Flute at Mattias' Roth Handle Studios in Stockholm.
We were very impressed by the song "Om Tare," especially for the particular choice to sing in Sanskrit. What does this track talk about? How did the idea originate?
The music for "Om Tare" was the last to be composed for the album. Mark had commented that it would be nice to have something a bit up tempo to complement the other tracks and I thought "I'll teach him" and wrote the manic intro and the verse/bridge/chorus sections for the song, in some ludicrous time signature, very quickly. (I do like to have fun when I compose sometimes and the track is somewhat challenging from a percussion perspective) Amy found herself singing the main mantra to the chorus section as, odd time signature or not, it fitted perfectly.
You have enriched a lot your sound with a series of instruments such as flute, oboe and cello and you have placed a great deal of attention in the arrangements: How did you manage to build a sound as complex and delicate at the same time? How is the compositional process like?
How did we manage it? Many, many, many hours of work in the writing and recording stages, going iteratively into greater and greater detail for each piece. Composition started in many different ways for the tracks on "The Water Road". A piece could start from some of Amy's lyrics, a piece of music from Thomas, or one from myself. Once one person has taken it as far as they wish to go, pieces get handed over from one person to another for them to add to it or change aspects of it. We did some writing sessions where we all wrote together but would also work individually. The end of the piece "When the Moon is in the River of Heaven", although provisionally sketched out by Thomas, was improvised live in the studio by the band and hence is a band composition.
In your previous albums we did perceive some good qualities but always it seemed that something was missing to reach perfection. Do you agree? Would you change anything now?
Yes I agree. Perfection is the realm of the gods, and all we can do strive to continually do better each time. The majority of any criticism I would have, personally, would be in the area of production for some of the earlier albums, but it's not a regret as such. We produced what we could with the resources available and the albums are what they are. Often the best art is made when struggling against restrictions and limitations. Yes and King Crimson didn't start to use Mellotrons because they were the coolest instruments on earth, they used them because they didn't have continual access to an orchestra, and yet those limitations helped produced their signature sounds. I'm not sure I'd actually go back and change things. One must always look forward.
The United Kingdom has always been considered the birthplace of Prog and its rebirth thanks to the so called "New Prog", but now it seems to have lost its centrality. What kind of place has prog now in UK and consequently your band in the nowadays British music scene?
Well, I think there are other countries that could argue that they are the birthplace of progressive music too, Italy notable amongst them. There's a huge amount of great music coming out now from all around the world, and I think that's really healthy. So many diverse influences. The next few years could be very exciting. The "Prog scene", if you can think of such a thing, is certainly different to what it was even five years ago. In one aspect, things have changed for the worse, that is the live scene. It is not easy to put on successful gigs in the UK, if people wish to see live music nowadays they are far more likely to go a see an old established band they know, a tribute act or a covers band. The scene for live original music is far less than it has been. In another aspect, I think things are definitely looking up as there's a lot of great music coming out of the UK in the last couple of years. Karda Estra and Big Big Train have produced wonderful stuff and both Magenta and The Tangent have released well received albums. There's also a lot of new stuff coming to light on MySpace from bands that have come to more eclectic music via the Radiohead route. I'm thinking of bands like Antique Seeking Nuns, really great stuff. I think that MySpace is helping to break down a lot of the genre and cultural boundaries we've become used to over the years and this bodes well for the future of interesting music.