The questions have been asked many times over the last few years-are they still together? When is a new CD coming out? What label are they on? Well, Sea of Tranquility Editor Pete Pardo got some of the scoop from the source themselves, as he participated in a coast-to-coast chat with Under the Sun guitarist/vocalist Chris Shryack, bassist Kurt Barabas, and drummer Jim Hardiman. 2004 looks to be a banner year for the hard rocking progressive trio-read on!
2000 and 2001 were banner years for California's Under the Sun. With a brand new album on Magna Carta Records, numerous live shows, including a high profile slot at NEARfest 2001, the band seemed to be on a roll. With a sound that can best be described as "American prog-n-roll", combining the symphonic complexity of Kansas with the aggressiveness of Rush, Under the Sun seemed ready to move on to big things. But some personnel changes and issues with their record label led to the band regrouping and taking a few years to put the pieces back together. Now, working as a trio, the band is putting the finishing touches on the long awaited sophomore release, which is sure to make it's mark on the progressive rock community.
Sea of Tranquility: You guys have been away from the public eye for a few years. What's new, and how is the new CD coming along?
Chris Shryack: Well, after the last tour and NEARfest performance back in 2001, the band had run a full cycle and had been together for five years, where we had written, rehearsed, recorded, and performed material together. So we had all lived closely with about 12 songs exclusively, and towards the end one additional song, which will be on the upcoming album. We finished the cycle and it became apparent with no major audience dictating that the four of us should stay together, that we would probably be a lot happier if some changes were made. I think they just manifested initially with Paul Shkut (drums) and Matt Evidon (keyboards) leaving for a myriad of reasons, and then we were lucky enough to meet up with Jim Hardiman (drums), who is an old friend of mine and Kurt knew him as well. Jim opted to take a shot and we have been pretty busy writing, performing, and recording. We have a lot of stuff coming in the interim since then, but then again we are lucky to have the luxury of hindsight on this new record, so I think it will be pretty powerful when it is all finished.
Kurt Barabas: A little addendum to what Chris just added-what we decided was going to be the last night, or last performance of the other incarnation of the band, we played at the Troubador, opening up for Spock's Beard. It was a really neat show, and it so happens that Jim Hardiman was at the gig. We hadn't seen him in years, and after the show we had a talk with him and explained to him what was going on, of course seeing if he was up for the job basically. It's been great ever since.
SoT: It really helps that you all know each other and have a bit of history together.
K.B.: Yeah, it did. There's a different kind of chemistry between the three of us, which is really neat and the new songs are more immediate and earthy.
SoT: What happened with your relationship with your old label Magna Carta?
Kurt Barabas: It basically came down to promotional reasons and Magna Carta not fulfilling their end of promoting the album for us.
SoT: Have you hooked up with a new label for the upcoming CD?
K.B.: We haven't spoken to any labels as of yet, because when the album is all finished we really want to explore all our options, more so than we did last time. With the debut CD we really hadn't even let our friends and family hear the new record when we had an offer from Magna Carta. We'd like to shop the new CD and take a look around, and we are really excited about having the opportunity to do that.
SoT: So Jim, how are you settling in with the band?
Jim Hardiman: Settling in great! It all started back in August 2001, and I had been playing drums for 21-22 years at that point, with many bands, but I hadn't been playing regularly in a band for a few years at that point, and wasn't really looking to hook up with one. There's a lot of effort that goes into being in a band, and I was looking to go into a few different avenues, but when Chris and Kurt approached me at the Spock's Beard show I thought about it. I was really on the fence about it and unsure about committing to something like this, but they are a great band and I figured I'd give it a little trial period and see what happens. After playing with them, both of whom are great musicians, in a style of music that really appealed to me, with their past material which is really great, it just brought out a whole new side of me. I've worked really hard on all my drumming to make it sound good for these guys, so it's a real challenge. It's been a long couple of years but I think when the product is done I think we are going to have a real kick-ass album and I'm going to be real proud of my drum tracks as well as Chris and Kurt's contributions.
SoT: What's your musical background like? Have you always been playing progressive music or hard rock?
J.H.: Well, yeah. I've got three older brothers so I've been listening to progressive music since I was like five years old, and was always intrigued by the drums. My oldest brother and my father are both drummers, so it was natural for me to gravitate towards that instrument. I've played in so many bands throughout my twenties, but never really progressive bands, as I've never really found the right musicians, or musicians that were good enough, so I always tended to wind up in standard rock bands. When this came up this was my first experience in a real progressive band. I think the drummer before me, Paul, was just tremendous, and I really had my work cut out for me learning all the old tracks, but it was a real blueprint from where to go with my own stuff.
SoT: It's a shame we didn't get to meet at NEARfest a few years back, before you joined Under the Sun. The band spent a lot of time with us at the Sea of Tranquility table in the vendor hall.
J.H.: Hopefully we will be out to the East Coast in 2004. It's been pretty quiet for us lately. We've done about a dozen or so gigs here in the Los Angeles area, mostly getting our "sea legs" so to speak. Once the album is done we will have something to promote, with a good distribution deal, and we can get out on the road and live the rock and roll life!
SoT: Are you guys going to remain a trio without keyboards?
J.H.: Yes. We all love keyboards, but the trio is just working out so well. I think not having that fourth member in there really lets us stretch out a bit more and explore new territory. The music might not be as cluttered as well. We've really gotten a great response to us as a trio, and the fans are saying that they are not missing the keyboards, and that we sound more powerful and more rocking. So for the immediate future I think the trio is just going to carry on, but who can tell what will happen in the future. We might meet up with the ultimate keyboard player for the band at some point, but right now we don't feel we are lacking in any way.
SoT: How have you been covering the keyboard parts live?
J.H.: We haven't! We've been doing songs like "This Golden Voyage" and other songs from the first album, and most people are saying they're not missing the keyboards. The basic arrangements are there, the rhythm section, and so it seems to be carrying it.
C.S.: We're not actively not looking for a keyboard player, we just have not met the right person and whether or not we have one like Jim mentioned whose to say, but right now we are either getting people who really appreciate the music without them or really miss them. It does seem to be "six of one, half dozen of another" as always. A lot of responsibility has come over to Jim now because obviously if you were a fan of the prior group he is the new sound in the band, but without the keys there it really sheds a sharp belief on his drums. There's a lot more freedom within the personalities of just the three of us, and the conflicts mostly come from external circumstances rather than from within, which is a big difference from the prior group.
SoT: Are all the songs completed for the upcoming album, and can you talk a little bit about them?
K.B.: The first month we were together was like a blueprint for the style of music we were going to be playing. We started with a little bass jam part that I had going, and Chris came in with a part and Jim came in with a part, and we all really contributed equally. The song is called "Life Seals/True Cascadia", and it's going to be the second track on the new CD, and that will be a good example of the mind melt, or the nature of our new collaborative efforts.
C.S.: The lyrical content of that song, it's kind of a real psychic song based on a concept by Edgar Casey on how one goes through a stream of conscious either literary or artistic. It's a good exercise to express ones spirit by putting together what he calls a "life seal", and it's by taking random images whether or not it's cutting out your favorite pictures and putting them into a collage, or doing stream of consciousness painting or writing, it's along those lines but it's important to express your spirit. The song was an attempt between the three of us, as we started to write like, I said with no prior material between us, we just started to write. The opening idea actually came from an error one of us made, and we liked it, so we kept working on that and it became the first motif that we built from and it kept building and building. To this day we may alter it a bit more as the recording process continues, but it's a pretty exciting and definitive first statement from the three of us.
SoT: How many tunes in total are going to be on the new CD?
C.S.: Probably between eight and nine. "Souljourner" will kick off the CD (which we played at NEARfest a few years ago), which will kind of close off that chapter of the past as it contains origins, instrumentally and lyrically, from the first group. The middle tracks of the CD will contain some real kick-ass rock tracks, and the final few tunes will be the more overt proggy stuff. The one nice thing as a writer, I've been really pleased and fortunate working with Kurt and Jim. With the first record, we all threw in ideas and wrote from scratch, and came out with an album of 12 songs with varying degrees of tone and about 75% of the songs were really intense and aggressive. Kurt and I sat back and said "well, what can we do different?" and we both agreed we'd like to have a more even balance of acoustic textures and pastoral areas mixed in with the aggression. I kind of mapped out or scripted out the flow and tone of the record on paper, which I had never done before and it really worked. Kurt and Jim both agreed with the whole script approach, but who knows if this works out this time, perhaps next time we'll just throw it all up in the wind and see what happens!(laughs) But it was good to take a much more regimented approach up front in the whole song structure of the record, and I think it will be a nice blend overall.
K.B.: We have an 18 minute epic called "Songlight" , which will be the final cut on the CD, which will total about 70 minutes in length. We're trying to make the CD a little shorter than the last one! (laughs)
SoT: So what kind of time frame are you looking at as far as finishing the CD and finding a new label?
K.B.: The plan right now is to have the CD done in late 2003 or early 2004.
SoT: A lot of fans are anxiously awaiting the new record….
K.B.: There are three guys in this room who are waiting patiently as well!!
SoT: (laughs) What are the immediate plans once the CD is finished and released?
K.B.: Well, depending on which label we go with, that would dictate what we do. We'd really like to play overseas, especially in Japan, where Jim has played before. Los Angeles is a tough place to play progressive rock…
SoT: There seems to be more interest in live progressive rock here on the East Coastas least as far as I can tell.
K.B.: For us, when we played the East Coast a few years ago, it was just great. Every show was wonderful, and the people and their love for the music is so different from the West Coast.
C.S.: One of the main occurrences for us last year which helped us keep going was meeting Steve Rogers who works for K&N Engineering, and he will be the Executive Producer on the new album. He hired us to do some music for his company, and his involvement has been a real benefit to us.
K.B.: Not only did we end up with a working professional and an ally, but we ending up making a real good friend out of the K&N experience.
SoT: What is the name of new CD?
K.B.: The working title is Kurt and the Smoking Joes! (laughs)
C.S.: (laughs) Seriously, so far it looks to be Tomorrow is the Setting Sun, which was the original working title and it seems to have stuck.
K.B.: I think the new CD will please everyone, and we look forward to making it available as quickly as possible.
J.H.: For me, I think the music on the new album has a lot more variety and subtlety, as well as the classic Under the Sun sound, more so than on the first album, which will surprise and please a lot of the fans of the band.
C.S.: We worked real hard to make sure that fans of the first record will not be disappointed. The intent was, given all the transition in the band, that we would carry over some of the strongest lyrical content of the first album. One song, "Language of the Wind" is a direct sequel to "Dream Catcher", which basically continues the story of that song over to a new place, and with any luck we will be able to finish off the trilogy on the third record. Again, we are trying to break new ground but we also want to keep and maintain the interest of the people who liked what we were doing before.