With the release of their scorching sophomore CD The Undefined Design, Man on Fire have created yet again music that contains loads of pop hooks and melodies, yet still maintains the adventurous arrangements found in modern progressive rock, as well as the crunch heard in metal. Sea of Tranquility Editor Pete Pardo shared some insight and laughs with the talented and fun trio of Jeff Hodges, Eric Sands, and Steve Carroll.
Sea of Tranquility: It's been a while since the first self-titled album came out. How did the whole process of getting the new CD written, recorded, and released go?
Jeff: (vocals, keyboards, samples, loops) Well, a couple of things, first off, I moved back to Atlanta. The first album had about 50% new material and 50% stuff that Eric and I had written years before. So it was all new material on the new CD except for the one remixed song. We produced it ourselves, and took our time to really get what we wanted.
Eric: (fretless and fretted bass, guitars) This is the luxury of having your own studio and being able to take the extra time. I think the product is all the better for it.
Steve: (lyrics, esoterics) Another thing to look at here is the fact that the first time around we released the CD ourselves on our own label. This CD could have been released significantly earlier than it was were it not for the process we were going through at the time with trying to find a label.
Jeff: Oh yeah...that! Forgot about that too! Probably added about a year, or at least close to it!
SoT: So how did you guys hook up with ProgRock Records?
Jeff: That was Steve…
Steve: Basically, it was a blind stab after seeing a post on the Progressive Ears website, where Jerry George, the A&R Director of ProgRock Records, posted an announcement of their two labels for anyone who wasn't aware of it. We had literally just been deep in the process of talking to 2 or 3 other labels, but we had all the materials together, and just contacted him saying who we are, and it was a wonderful "whirlwind romance" and everything kind of came together within a week.
SoT: How has reaction been to the new CD so far?
Eric: It's really been excellent. We are really very humbled by the reception so far, and certainly didn't expect it. We are kind of a newer prog band, not in the traditional sense, so it's very refreshing to be received in the way that we are right now.
Jeff: It's really not even what we were going for, with a conscious mind to "make a progressive album", even though the first record was accepted within the genre and we kept working through that contact to the outside world, but we never pigeonhole ourselves or our sound to any one genre. We just make music that we like to make.
SoT: There are a lot of heavier moments on the new CD. Was there a conscious effort to add more aggression to your songs?
Eric: We tend to like heavy material anyway, but I don't think we intended to necessarily go in that direction. Not on my part anyway…
Jeff: When I was mixing I was definitely going for a bigger, beefier, ballsier, meaner, fatter feeling, kind of like what we got on "Internal Combustion" from the first album, with the guitars popping out on the production side. Eric just did his thing, and the mix is where our feelings are a little more forward, a little more pissed. It's kind of really like the current state of the world man…time to get loud and noisy you know! Kind of like "Bitter Tears Burning"…I mean that song is pissed!
That first piece that starts off the new album, the three-part "Awake", is pretty adventurous and a bit different than anything you have done before. Who came up with that one?
Steve: Basically "Awake", early on, Jeff and I were talking about the idea of the multi-part thing, and working on ideas of trying to find a place of peace, or to, in more literal terms, falsely get away from everything, and the inability to shut your head off. That became the basic concept of what "Awake" became, with Part One being "Prayer in the Moonlight" dealing with trying to achieve that sense of longing and praying into the night to find that place of peace. We had always decided that once that peace comes, which is symbolized by the ambient section right before Part Two, which is "Bitter Tears Burning", that we wanted it to be a nightmare, we wanted it to seem like you get to that place of relaxation and then "bam!", we would turn it all off. We were thinking of what would be a good subject point for that nightmare, and then 9/11 happened. There's a definite 9/11 spin to that sequence of the song, lyrically, and it already was written to be a very aggressive, angry, menacing sequence.
SoT: So it seems like you guys are getting inspiration from all over then?
Jeff: Yes, but just to back up, as far as the music goes, just like most of the material, I'll come up with the initial musical idea either on a synthesizer or grand piano. "Awake" came from that but I also I laid down some basic vocal ideas, and then Steve will take those vocal melodies and write the words from that. Eric will come in and write his parts in the studio.
SoT: So Steve, I guess that is what you mean by contributing esoterics?
Steve: Well, esoterics actually refer to wearing a lot of other hats!
Eric: We refer to Steve as the glue. It's a very important job he has, I mean Jeff and I both have very strong personalities…
Jeff: No we don't, shut up Eric!!! (laughs)
Eric: (laughs) We can often get into it, and fight like brothers…I mean, we have known each other for 20 years.
Jeff: Eric's more like a sister really….(laughs)
Eric: Don't let me kick your ass! (laughs)
Seriously though, Steve kind of keeps us all balanced and keeps things together.
SoT: I've known Steve now for a couple of years-we met at NEARfest back in 1999, and I have recently named him the Peter Sinfield of the group…
Steve: I won't turn down that compliment Pete!
SoT: It kind of fit! (laughs)
Eric: He's more like the Renfield of the group!
Jeff: Kind of like the Yoda I'd say! (laughs) Check out his ears!
Steve: What is this Jeff-you've been ribbin' my ears all day?? That's the second time today! (laughs)
Jeff: Yeah I know, but after we sell a couple million copies of the new CD you can get that ear-reduction surgery you've always wanted! (laughs)
SoT: On another note (laughs), you guys have David Ragsdale, former violinist/guitarist with Kansas, as a guest on the CD. How did that all come to happen?
Eric: I had seen his band PDQ play here locally in Atlanta, and I was just floored by his musicality, presence, and the most beautiful violin playing I have ever heard in my like. I had goose bumps throughout the whole show. I had met Jerry Peek, his bass player, after the show, who gave me his e-mail address, and I contacted David and he was very eager to work on our new CD. He was out in Las Vegas supporting a major act, and we exchanged ADAT tapes back and forth, and he did some overdubs here and there and it worked out quite well.
SoT: He adds a nice element to the CD, much like what he added to the Salem Hill CD that he worked on with them.
Steve: He was awesome on that as well!
SoT: Any reason for the remix on "Just Out of Reach" for the new CD?
Eric: We really wanted to include it with Ragsdale's violin parts, which really completed the tune, and was so nice that we just thought we'd add it.
Steve: It's a little bit of a funny story, as we originally had intended for David to record on two of the new songs, and "Just Out of Reach" had actually been on the ADAT tape we sent him (the original version of the song from the first album) and when we got the tape back and listened to the song, suddenly there were violin parts on it that we had never heard. So we got to experience that song all over again!
SoT: It's just a great song made better with him on it. I liked it on the first album, but when I heard this version I was just like "wow!"
Jeff: That song originally came about out of a lot of stress…
SoT: You can tell, lyrically…
Jeff: I wrote the lyrics on that one. I had just finished having a real bad experience on New Years, as I hurt my knee really bad and I had to have knee surgery, so I wrote that one with one leg up in a sling basically. A very rough time…
Eric: "Just Out of Reach" is a very difficult song to recreate live, to get the feeling of it, and I had to go out and re-learn it again.
SoT: Are you going to add a full-time drummer at any point?
Eric: We'd like to. We've had some encouraging developments with one of our original drummers, David Smith, and he's going to start rehearsing with us, so we shall see where it goes.
Jeff: He's all over the new album.
SoT: Eric, were you into Jaco Pastorius or Tony Levin at all when you first started playing bass?
Eric: Tony Levin certainly, not so much Jaco then as I am just now getting into his bass style. He was kind of like the Hendrix of the bass guitar. It's funny how I came to start playing fretless. We had a great fretless player in the band, Joey Fabian, in Section 8, and we didn't have a bass player and needed to record some songs, so I just picked it up and started emulating what he was doing and some other fretless players that I liked listening to like Mick Karn, and just kind of evolved from there.
Jeff: And he's since become a monster on it!
SoT: So how long have you actually been playing bass?
Eric: 22 years on the bass, and 26 years on guitar. I don't really have a preference one or the other, but over the last few years I've found bass to be a little more rewarding.
SoT: You have a real lyrical style, and it really comes across in the music, especially on the new album. There are a lot of neat lead bass lines on the new one.
Eric: I really enjoy melodies, and Jeff does a great job with keyboards and synthesizers of filling in the low end which frees me up to do a lot more experimental things and to play melodies with him. I don't have to take a traditional role of a bass player if I don't want to.
SoT: How do you work this out live?
Jeff: I'm playing keyboard bass and samples on a lot of songs.
Eric: Jeff supplements the low end on keys, and I'm playing bass live for the most part, and we also have a really good guitar player with us for live gigs.
Jeff: But, the parts live are slightly different, and he holds down more of the low end than the combo like on the record. It's more if a live thing.
SoT: What kind of keyboards are you carrying around with you these days?
Jeff: Well, for live shows I've got a Roland A-90 controller maxed out with all the traditional sounds like strings and pianos, but I've also just switched over and started experimenting using Reiven, which is a computer-based synthesizer rack. I also have the new laptop version of the Zendrum that actually sits over my main keyboard and I can reach up and trigger loop samples, and drum stuff. In the studio, my favorite, and what is all over the new record, is the Access Virus synthesizer, and I've just upgraded that to the Indigo. It's awesome! Can't get enough of it. Just awesome!
Eric: And he's not even endorsed! You'd think he was the way he's taking about it! (laughs)
Jeff: I should be! My latest toy is my Zendrum, which is a 24 pad percussive midi instrument. Very cool.
SoT: So, what's next for the band-new songs, live shows, mini-tours?
Eric: All of the above!
Jeff: We've got two songs already started, a third in the works, and we plan to have another CD out within a year. We want to give the new one a chance to live…
Steve: But is doesn't need five years!
Jeff: It won't be five years, we promise! You can put that in writing.
Eric: We need to promote this one first!
SoT: Well, thanks for your time guys. It has been fun, and best of luck with the CD!
Steve: Thanks Pete! We really appreciate all the kind words and coverage that Sea of Tranquility has given us!