Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Echolyn Interview

I recently conducted an online interview with members of the band Echolyn. Unfortunately, Ray Weston and Paul Ramsey were unavailable for comment.

Echolyn are a band that need no introduction to most fans of the modern era of progressive rock. They formed in the suburbs of Philadelphia in the early 90’s and are often considered to be one of the bands to spearhead the prog resurgence of the early to mid 90’s.  While always playing music that could fall under the progressive rock umbrella, Echolyn aren’t a band who rehash what has been done a million times before them nor do they rest on their laurels. Instead, they try new things, whether it be a single track disc, a double album or a more song oriented modern rock sounding album that might sound like a far cry from the mellotron soaked prog that often stereotypes the genre. Needless to say, Echolyn are anything but predictable. I have met the band on numerous occasions and have seen them perform several times so I thought it might be fun to put together an informative interview for those who want to learn more about the band.

Echolyn consists of:

Christopher Buzby(CB)-keyboards, backing vocals

Thomas Hyatt(TH)-bass, backing vocals

Brett Kull(BK)-guitars, lead and backing vocals

Paul Ramsey-drums and percussion, backing vocals

Raymond Weston-bass, lead and backing vocals

echolyn interview:

Let's start at the very beginning. Do all the members of echolyn come from a musical background and how old were you guys when you first started to play musical instruments and what did you play?.

BK: No one in my family is a musician. I was an anomaly. I’ve been “into” music since I can remember and have always played some sort of instrument.

CB: Born into a musical family, both of my parents were singers and my mom played piano.  My parents started me on piano lessons when I was 5.  I also sang in my church choir for many years (age 7-16), added French Horn (grades 5-8) and Alto Saxophone (grade 4 to present) to my instrumental lessons (and was a performing member of The Philadelphia Boys Choir (a world-renown professional international touring choir) for 3 years from ages 10-12.  I also participated in every High School singing, instrumental and theatrical ensemble and received a Bachelor’s Degree in Music Composition & Theory and Music Education from Moravian College (PA).   More recently I completed my Master’s Degree in Music Education at West Chester University (PA).

TH: I began playing bass when I was about 14 or 15. My Dad, who also plays, always left his Bradley Precision copy lying around. After learning some basic fretting (25 or 6 to 4 by Chicago), I gradually started noodling around with whatever music seemed easy or doable (Kinks, Kiss). Around the same time I discovered Rush, Iron Maiden, and Led Zeppelin learned the vital role bass played in music and I was hooked.

I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the history of the band. How did you guys meet, first get together and decide to form a band. Also, was there a conscious decision to play music in the progressive rock style?

BK: Paul and I have been playing together since high school. We formed a cover band and met Ray (through my Dad). That cover band was my college experience. It taught me how to play in front of people, learn different styles and drink lots of alcohol. I got tired of playing cover music after 3 years of jumping from bar to bar. There was no real reward in it. Ray and Paul wanted to keep making the money and playing covers… I quit. About a year later they realized that the guy who got the gigs, organized the rehearsals and basically drove the project wasn’t in the band anymore. They came back to me on their knees because I was playing cool original music, had a recording studio and had gigs lined up ;-) That was the beginning of echolyn.

CB: I used to go to the same Elementary School and the start of Middle School with one of Brett’s younger brothers, Tim.  While we didn’t see each other for about 6 years (my parents transferred me to a private school in 8th grade) Tim and Brett’s dad ran into me while I was working in a mall clothing store when I was 18, living at home, and commuting to college.  Long story short, Brett’s dad passed my name and number to Brett since he was looking for a keyboard player to work with; the rest is history. When I joined we all decided we wanted to play and write only original music together; we never discussed the word prog or progressive – I didn't know what they meant anyway! - we just wanted our music to be original and different than most of the crap being played on the radio!

TH: I first heard echolyn playing at Dewers Pub in Willow Grove PA, while I was home on spring break of my senior year. I was blown away by the originality and the musicianship. I had never seen anyone do music like that with so much finesse. All I thought was if I can't play with a band like that, I didn't want to play at all. As luck would have it, they were holding auditions the exact same week I was graduating. I gave it my best shot and here I am talking to you today

I understand that echolyn itself is not a full time endeavor for any of you guys although some of you do make a living out of making music. When you are not recording or performing live with echolyn what do you guys do to support yourselves?

BK: I own my own company called Area 602. With that I record, produce and write music. I also work with various artists recording and producing their songs. I’m a session guitarist and work with lots of people in the studio and live. I also teach basic sound and Sound Design for film and video at two universities. Besides all that, I’m trying to get my Behavioral Science degree to continue my education.

CB: I am currently a full–time music teacher at a K-12 Private Quaker co-ed day school in Jenkintown, PA, named Abington Friends School.  I start my 17th year this coming September and still love my job.  I am Director of Instrumental Music and the 7th Grade Dean, which means I direct all of the Instrumental music ensembles (concert bands and jazz ensembles) from 5-12th grade as well as teach a Digital Audio course and lead several small ensembles: Drum Circle, Electronic Music Ensemble (e:me) and Jazz Combo.  As Dean I lead a team of ~20 teachers and am the go-between for families and the school. I also have a private roster of weekly lessons/students (~15 per week) to whom I teach private lessons in piano, composition and saxophone.

TH: I work in clinical research drafting and reviewing informed consents for clinical subjects. I would explain more, but I don't want to put anyone to sleep:-)

What are the advantages and disadvantages of having the band as more or less a serious hobby?

BK: There really are no disadvantages with the band being a hobby. It’s wonderful. We get together because we like to make music together, not because we have to. As long as we are considerate of everyone’s schedule we can continue to write and hang out. It’s probably more frustrating to folks that want to see us play live or want more musical output. We just can’t give people the kind of time we did when we were kids.

CB: The advantage to echolyn being apart-time hobby: 
our personal lives and time is already at a premium. I personally don’t see how I could do the band full-time when I am already committed to 60-80 work-weeks from Sept-May. Everyone else is the band has similar schedules and commitments, making it tough to do echolyn anymore than we currently can and do.
The disadvantage to echolyn being a part-time hobby: 
when we want to write and record and play live it is really difficult to get our 5 schedules/lives to coordinate.  And, of course, you have to leave time for the creative process to unfold and nurture itself as well; that is difficult and can sometimes be very frustrating when we’re only getting together once a week or three times a month. But it’s better than nothing; hence why echolyn is a hobby at this point!

TH: To me there is no worry about relying on the band for my bread and butter. As result we are able to take chances when writing music and not worry whether or not the album will sell enough to support us. Plus I am able to to appreciate music as a passion rather than as a "job" or as a "labor"

Now for the million dollar question. How exactly did you guys come up with the name echolyn and is there any deep significance to the name?

BK: It’s just a name I made up. I wanted something that had no other meaning and therefore could only be associated with us.

CB: I personally wanted the band name to be written “e:” but Brett insisted on the “lyn” ending. Rather than being voted off the Island, I relented and gave in.  ;-)

There seems to be prominent, although not necessarily easily identifiable, literary influences in much of  the band’s lyrics. I was wondering if you could shed some light on that. Are there any writers or poets that stand out as being particularly influential in shaping the subject matter in the words to the music?

BK: I read a lot, but my words are primarily personal experiences. I’ve used books and movies as launch pads to get started on something but they invariably become my own words. The Last two albums have stepped into an even more personal experience in the text. At best, I hope to connect with listeners through a common feeling and emotional context. Regarding recent books: I’ve been reading a lot of Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Dan Barker lately. It’s part of my journey.

CB: While I have only written lyrics to 4 songs over the years (Patchwork, How Long I Have Waited, The Currents of Me, Brittany) I would defer to Brett and Ray on this one; however, for the 4 songs I did pen words to, I was usually writing about my life and the world in which we live and reacting to situations around me for inspiration and context.

Many prog bands seem to go through countless personnel changes. echolyn has gone through some over the years but for the most part has had a very stable lineup. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the dynamics in the band and why you think that the band has stayed together through thick and thin for the most part.

BK: The band has been pretty much the same since the beginning. Tom joined after our first year. He played on our first album and joined again after Cowboy Poems and Mei. We all like each other and listen to each other. Paul and I have known each other since 6th grade. He is one of my best friends. We have a dynamic in the band and each person has their function by their own choice. It works, what can I say?

CB: This band knows deep-down how lucky we are, as the echolyn 5, to have what we have musically as well as friends.  In the end that is what has pulled us through band fights, disagreements, and artistic clashes of vision.  We respect what we have when we are together and that pulls us through each and every time.  We know how unique that is, and while we sometimes take it for granted, it is never far from our minds.

TH: I think chemistry is extremely hard to find and maintain in a band. Very few bands have ever successfully had personnel changes that have worked out. You can have any variety of talented musicians play together, but it doesn't mean that they will make great music together. We are lucky to have worked together and I think we all appreciate and listen to each other when writing together.

Are you guys able to work out your differences in a professional manner most of the time? 

BK: We argue and disagree now but it’s all constructive and not deconstructive. Because we have a shared past and respect each other, the disagreements are fleeting. We generally are on the same page with everything, which is quite astounding.

CB: In our 20’s we fought and yelled more than we do now; these days we either argue with passionate words or give each other the “silent treatment” – bottom line, you get too tired in your 40’s to fight and it’s way more fun to share a beer than to throw one!  ;-)

TH: As we've grown (much) older and have matured, we have learned to find the potential in each other’s ideas. Some songs have evolved from a single riff. Others have been brought in as fully arranged ideas that just needed everyone's signature. We have gotten much better at communicating and have become more open about letting go of ideas to make way for each other’s contributions.

In the mid 1990's, after the ordeal with Sony, you guys called it quits. I don't want to rehash those particular events in this interview but needless to say at the time it seemed to be the best thing for the band. Chris, you went on to form Finneus Gauge with your brother Jonn and a few other seasoned musicians including the acclaimed fusion guitarist Scott McGill, while the other members of the band formed Always Almost and Still. Were there musical differences at that time among you guys that caused you to pursue separate musical projects? Also, how did the music of these various bands differ from what you guys were doing in echolyn?

BK: We’ve always been different musically. That’s what makes this band so frigging cool. We split because we had worked for almost 6 years of our lives giving 100% of our time to making the band into something huge and monetarily successful. I want to stress that when bands ask me how we got as successful as we did it’s because we gave everything we had. We didn’t rehearse once a week and play an occasional gig… we did it everyday! Hanging posters, sending out mailing lists, planning gigs, fixing our truck, writing music, paying bills was all we did. My wife never saw me… and left me because of it. We sacrificed our 20s to the god of music. My 20s were spent touring and recording with no paycheck. We were all tired of it and needed to see what else was out there. It’s funny because when Sony surreptitiously dropped us, no one had the balls at the time to say the band was done, we sort of split in an uncomfortable ways as best we could. I’m glad we took a break.

CB: We were all frustrated by the Sony debacle and it forced us to make some major life changes and decisions.  I wanted to resume teaching, as I had left that part of my life to do echolyn full-time with Sony.  When I earned the teaching job at Abington Friends I realized how much music I still had churning in my head, and with my brother Jonn just returning home from college in North Carolina and looking to jam, voila!, finneus gauge was formed.  I don’t regret those years at all.  I’m very proud of those 2 albums – and I learned a ton about being a band-leader, producer, engineer and composer.  In the end I think it made my return to echolyn all the stronger, as I had experiences under my belt that I hadn’t ever had with echolyn.

TH: In 95 I discovered that I no longer desired to rely on music as a way to support myself. Sony had lost interest and I was struggling to get by day to day. In order for us to make the kind of music we wanted to, hardcore commitment on everyone's behalf was needed, which I was no longer able to provide.  I was also no longer feeling the passion everyone else had for working as a musician. So I decided it was time for me to leave

You guys reformed in 2000. How and why did the band decide to get back together after a five-year absence?

BK: I’m always reaching out to friends. I like staying connected and plugged in. Once we had our lives in order it was just time to play again. As I said, we liked hanging out… so we missed each other.

CB: Unbeknownst to one another, Brett and I had mailed each other holiday cards 1-day apart in hopes of repairing the split (we hadn’t been talking); when we each received the other’s card in the mail we knew it was more than a random act of happen-chance and we called one another to officially “bury the hatchet.”  What came next was a promise and a challenge to see if we still had any music in us still to be written; needless to say, we did!

Initially Tom Hyatt (the bass player) was not part of the reformed version of the band. I understand there was a bit of a falling out that occurred. Tom, how were you integrated back into the band. Did you contact the band first?

BK: When tom was ready to hang again we were there as the friends we had always been. He’s a dear friend of mine and I missed him.

CB: The band/Brett actually reached-out to Tom a few times over the years to see if he had any interest in rejoining the band, but each time he wasn’t ready to rejoin or consider rejoining.  I totally respect that, because when he did rejoin it was on his terms – which made his return all-the-better.

TH: Brett actually found my work number, contacted me, and asked if I was interested in performing "The Cheese Stands Alone" at NEARFest 2002. At the time of the performance I did not really have it mind to return to the band, but that night after beers and stripclubs I realized how much I missed everyone. Plus I had instantly become addicted to "CowBoy Poems" and "Mei" and found myself lingering around the studio more and more:-)

I understand that there was some video shot while recording the latest album. Will this show up on a future dvd or maybe a documentary of the band?

CB: Hopefully!  We started trying to capture as much of the “process” as possible with the last few albums, as we realize that creating music is an interesting thing to watch, behold and most importantly, be a part of.  Paul used to bring a handheld video tape recorder years ago to most of our live shows, but recording the studio process sheds entirely new light on how a song is born, changes, morphs and eventually lands as the version the world hears when an album is released.  All hail the invention of the digital Flip Camera!!  Whoo-hoo!!!  ;-)

It’s been ten years since the release of what some people consider to be your magnum opus, “mei,” which for those who don’t know, consisted of one single almost 50-minute title track.  Mei is possibly the most polarizing album you have done. Would you attribute that to the ambitious nature of the album including the fact that it is one lengthy piece?

BK: It’s one of my favorite songs we have. It works live with and without the extra musicians. That album can only be played by “ real men” ;-) As “boys” in our 20s, we would have never been able to have that kind of musical finesse. It really is one beautiful song. Most folks that write a longer piece will have tons of parts and movements to help the arrangement. We didn’t want that. It’s actually a very simple song that utilizes a few themes in creative ways.

CB:  Excellent – polarizing is a good thing.  As Michael Caplan, our A&R guy for Sony/Epic used to say: “I want people to love you or hate you because indifference is the kiss of death!”  Mei clearly has done that to folks.  Bottom line: I think it is our most honest, raw, best-arranged, compositionally strong, song to-date.  Love it or hate it, it is us, being us, for ourselves. And no, that’s not ego talking, that’s a proud artist talking!

Are there any plans to do a “mei” part two or anything that might be equally as ambitious in scope or maybe another double album?

BK: No, I hate repeating myself. That would be too much like Meat Loaf’s Bat out of Hell II… a bad idea!

CB: No plans or discussions, but then again there were no plans or discussions to do something like mei before we did something like mei – it just happened!  We simply follow our musical muse and see where it takes us.  So many artists these days forget to simply follow the creative path – instead they pursue something thinking it is what they are “supposed” to do or are “expected” to create.  Kind of sad, actually.  We constantly remind ourselves that the song must have an “essence” in order to be good and actually “say” something; from there it’s then our job to deliver or present it to the listener using sounds, rhythms, melody, harmony, etc.  Not an easy task, but one we thrive on!

Let’s talk about the new album for a bit. What was the creative process like making this album and how did it differ from past albums?

BK: Newness in writing and recording! Melody, harmony and feel were paramount. It took a ling time to find something new and worth pursuing, that includes the lyrics too. There’s no banging on this album and yet there is a heaviness and weight.

CB: Make music that doesn’t suck. Period.
Make music that is truly original and truly progresses – i.e. no rehash, no repeating ourselves, and music for ourselves first and foremost (‘cause if we don’t like it, then who will?)
For the first time in a long time we also left about 6 songs off the album release, because they didn’t make the final cut - although they will see the light of day eventually, as they are still great songs, IMHO, just not fit for the album release.

TH: The creative process varies from song to song, but the overall theme was to continually push each every song to it's fullest potential. Many of the songs heard in final product were recorded and re-recorded to assure there were no second thoughts, doubts, or regrets that as to whether we could have made them better. That is why the album took so long. We had to let go of a lot ideas that we had become attached to, destroy them, and resurrect them into their phoenix:-) 

What was the editing process like if there was one and does all the material you recorded for these sessions show up on the album?

BK: Since we are self producing our own material we have to be very careful. “Demo love” and self-congratulatory behavior is too easy. I know I personally had to constantly step away from the songs and give them a hard look. If something didn’t work with the intent of the lyrics it was cut. Space was important.

CB: Daunting and tough, but in the end the best songs made the cut and the weaker songs did not.  We were also still putting finishing touches on vocals, overdubs and percussion right up until Brett mixed each tune – which sounds last-minute, but it actually allowed us to make sure each tune had just enough of each “spice” needed prior to proper mixing. ;-)

Did you guys consciously set out to make it a double album or was that decision made partly because of the amount of material you had accumulated since making the last record?

BK: I think in my mind I wanted to try for a double album. When I say album, I mean vinyl. I love the idea of the way vinyl forces you to group songs together per side. Some CDs are just too long. We’ve been a culprit of long CDs and have tried to keep the length of our releases to a minimum. With this release, vinyl was the model. I think the album leaves people wanting more. This was our intent.

CB: Technically the 71 minutes of music on this record we released COULD fit on 1 CD – however we thought the listener deserved a break between disc 1 and disc 2; thus the double-album concept and release.  The CD release also ties closely to what you hear when you play
the vinyl, which is (at the minimum) short stops between each of the 4 sides as you flip the record and give your ears a break from each set of two songs per side. Space and time to process is something we, as a society, need more of; it was our gift to listeners with this release.

TH: We have always wanted to make double album. I can't say that was the initial intention, but towards the end we wanted to recapture the days of sitting down with a finished product and enjoying the whole album listening experience. The album artwork, the liner notes, the song sequence, the idea of getting up halfway through and changing CDs. The romanticism of enjoying an "album" per say, seems to have disappeared in the age of MP3s and iPods.

Were there any challenges making a double that you didn’t experience with your other albums?

BK: The hard part is finding songs that work together and arranging them to fit within the time constraints of the medium. This is very difficult and something that is taken for granted in our day and age!

CB: As I already stated – just making music that doesn’t suck.  SO much has already been said and done well, and just as much has been done poorly.  We wanted to tread into new territory for both ourselves and for the music.  It was a tough, challenging process – but soooo completely worth it when I listen to what we’ve actually created with this album release!

What made you guys decide to release the new self titled album on vinyl as well as other formats.  Have any other Echolyn albums been released on vinyl?

BK: It was on my bucket list of things to do before I die. Being a Gen Xer, I grew up listening to records as a kid in the 70s. This was a wave hello to our past. Who knows if we’ll release our back catalogue on vinyl? We’d have to see if it’d work.

CB: Not yet – but I would stress the YET part!  ;-)

TH: This is our first on vinyl. It was a a dream we have all had since the very beginning, but did not have the capability of doing until now. It also goes back to what I mentioned earlier regarding the re-capturing the old album listening experience.

Have you seen a significant increase in the demand for vinyl over the last ten years or so?

BK: There has been an increase in vinyl sales worldwide. It’s a combination of nostalgia from Gen Xers and Baby Boomers as well as younger generations looking for new mediums because of the hip factor and because Digital recording has been getting worse rather than better. That will change.

CB: Not significant, but fans have asked for it from time to time.  With the resurgence in vinyl in all music mediums and recent releases over the past 3-4 years it surely helped us to consider doing it for this latest release.  Chris Topham at Plane Groovy simply made it a no-brainer by being the catalyst in actually making it happen.  Thanks, Chris and PG!!

TH: There is definitely a re-emergence of the demand for vinyl these days. I think mainly because, they are back to making the old 180 gram discs that had all but disappeared by the late 70. The sound is far superior to CD or digital download. 

The second track on the second disc, "When Sunday Spills," has a rather peculiar sound sample  in the beginning of it. What is the story behind that and how was it recorded?

CB: Bottom line: what happens in your home, should stay in your home, unless you’re foolish enough to let it spill-out onto the pavement…then it becomes everyone’s business.

BK: It is real and visceral. I can’t be specific but those people should be quarantined.

Were there any challenges making a double that you didn’t experience with your other albums?

CB: Yes, several.  Those tough decisions included:
Deciding whether it should be a double, or not.
Picking the final 8-tracks to make the actual album. 
Picking a track running order that felt right and also fit the 4 sides of vinyl. 
None of those decisions were easy; however, using 20/20 hindsight, I personally am thrilled with what we decided and how it turned out!

TH: Mainly finding time to get together and seriously work on the music. We also did a lot more deconstruction and reconstruction in the song writing process

What changes in recording technology or music technology has Echolyn experienced since forming over twenty years ago and do you think these changes have been for the better?

CB: I’ll let Brett talk about the recoding equipment, but for me in terms of a keyboard player who writes almost all of my compositional ideas on piano, I love going back to the simplicity of a Wurlitzer Electric Piano and/or Fender Rhodes, a Hammond organ, piano and one solo synth in my rig.  It allows me to keep my writing organic as well as keep the essence of a song from the flash-point of creation.  Using a lot of acoustic piano on this “rock” album, along with real strings, also brings a warmth and essence of timelessness to these songs – something we purposely considered when both writing and recording – another level, layer and element to both echolyn’s current “sound” and “style.”

BK: Digital recording and editing, of course… and yes they are for the better. The only issue I take is that digital editing has allowed horrible musicians to sound good. It has put many session players out of work because you can easily fix bad playing rather than hire a good musician to do it right.

TH: The changes are too extensive to list in a single paragraph. Obviously the changes are better in so many ways. If there was a draw back, I would say it is that it is very easy to get caught up in punching in many parts rather than playing straight through, but that is also an advantage in that a musician can have so many options, which can only benefit the song.

Echolyn have played NEARfest(the north east art rock festival)on three different occasions and at ProgDay twice. What was it like playing at these festivals and how did it differ from regular shows? Also,  do you anticipate playing any other festivals in the future?

BK: I like playing smaller shows. I hate big stages. I want to smell smoke and stand next to my band mates. There’s almost too much pressure at a festival where everyone is playing a certain “style”. I like playing in front people with no expectations.

CB: The best part of any festival is the critical mass of fans who will be present, attentive, and actively “into” the bands playing. Progressive Rock Festivals are already few and far between, so to be invited to play at so many over the years has been great for us. Connecting with new fans and reconnecting with prior fans is also a really important part of who we are as echolyn - people who enjoy and thrive on the connection our music brings to others. Sharing stories over a cold beer is something we never turn down!

TH: I've always enjoyed the festivals we have performed. You have so many people who know and appreciate the music under one roof. It really lets us know our music has had a significant impact.  Lately though, We've been so focused on the album for so long, we haven't actually fully discussed playing live. We're going to address the idea at some point.

You guys will undoubtedly take a well-deserved break but are there any plans to tour anytime soon and if so are there any plans to record another live album at some point in the near future?

CB: No immediate plans.  We will evaluate the album sales and, more importantly, our time in the late-summer and early-fall and decide what to do in terms of touring or even a small batch of live shows.  In the meantime I am going to continue negotiations with Justin Bieber’s tour manager to see if he’d consider doing a cover version of our new album’s opening track “Island” on his new world tour!  Wish me luck!!  ;-)

BK: Break? There are no breaks. I constantly work and enjoy every minute of it!

This was a lot of fun and it was good seeing you guys at Nearfest. Thanks for doing it.

CB: Thank you!!  Support like this continues to spread our name and music to others.  Thanks for taking an interest and the time to send such great and thoughtful interview questions!!

BK: We appreciate your interest and support. People like you greatly affect our recognition. Cheers!