The veteran progressive band from Scotland have recently released a definitive concert DVD, The Blinding Darkness, with songs spanning their entire career, and are set to play the prestigious NEARFest event in July, their first ever US gig. Sea of Tranquility Publisher Pete Pardo spent some time recently with Pallas lead vocalist Alan Reed, to talk about the DVD, NEARFest, the history of the band, and the second wave of progressive rock that started in the early 1980's. This interview is brought to you once again by the staff at Sea of Tranquility and Progressive Ears.
It was a dark and dreary Saturday morning when Alan Reed of Pallas and myself held a 30 minute overseas conversation-ironically just as dreary on both ends of the line as both the East Coast of the US and the UK are on the verge of bidding farewell to Winter and trying to welcome in Spring. Fortunately, our conversation was anything but bleak-Alan is an engaging and colorful person, who gave lots of insight into Pallas, one of the longest running of the second wave of progressive rock bands. So, imagine if you will Alan's thick Scottish accent and exuberant delivery, as he paints a fascinating picture of the majestic band that is Pallas.
Sea of Tranquility: So Alan, where are you calling from this morning?
Alan Reed: I'm at my home studio in London. We've just had a spectacular hailstorm, but it seems to be getting sunny again.
SoT: It's been fairly rainy and gray here in New York lately as well!
A.R.: Seems to be the season I guess.
SoT: Are you familiar with Sea of Tranquility or Progressive Ears?
A.R.: I've come across Progressive Ears quite recently actually, when we were informed that we would be coming over to the US for NEARFest. So I've been having a look at what the "community" has been thinking about various issues. I've found Sea of Tranquility, but I still have some digging around to do with it so I don't know a lot about it yet.
SoT: Our two sites have formed an alliance recently, and we are looking to bring the best of progressive music to the audience-SoT with its rich content of interviews, news, and CD reviews, and PE with its discussion forums and reviews archives.
A.R: Yes, PE has really taken over where rec.music.progressive used to be, and I recognize a lot of the same people who used to frequent that forum now on PE.
SoT: It's a great forum for people to meet and share thoughts & ideas on this kind of music. So we will be featuring your interview on both sites, which means that you'll be getting a nice audience and some decent exposure!
A.R.: Good, great news!
SoT: Let's talk about The Blinding Darkness-how has the reaction been to the DVD & CD?
A.R.: We've never actually thought of The Blinding Darkness as a CD really. It was InsideOut's decision to release it in various formats. Primarily we see it as a DVD, and that's really how we planned it. We're really pleased with it, as well as the reaction we've had from the fans. Frankly, I've spent about a month, especially when it first came out, on daily press alone in Europe. The reaction has been just phenomenal! Much, much better that we had anticipated certainly, as obviously Pallas isn't a band with a vast budget at its disposal. So, we pretty much did it on as tight a monetary constraint as you can imagine. The idea was to get a document of what Pallas is, a cross section of what the band does and how it does it, catching the spirit of the band so to speak, and I think we've managed to do that with the DVD. People seem to have picked up on that, which you really can't ask for more quite frankly.
SoT: Absolutely. I think the DVD captured a great performance of the band as well as a snapshot of Pallas in general. How tough was it to play the show with a full camera crew running around?
A.R.: It was a very difficult thing to do. We've worked with cameras before, so it wasn't like it was a completely new experience, and I work with cameras quite a lot, but it's very distracting. You try to ignore them as much as possible, but you're also conscious that it's being recording for the cameras primarily, that's what you are there for. Although it's a gig, it's not a normal or natural gig situation, so you have to work the cameras for the end result, which is the DVD on this particular occasion. So, you're kind of torn in two directions really when you are doing it. You're also conscious that you have to get things as right as you possibly can. In a normal gig situation you can make the odd mistake and you just gloss over it and move on, and in the heat of the moment it doesn't matter so much. But when you have to live with the thing for years afterwards, being the DVD, you've gotta make sure it's as good as you can make it.
SoT: Well sure, a DVD is a lasting impression…
A.R.: Yes, so it's quite an eerie sort of environment to be in, and you're under a lot more impression than you are with a normal gig. Normally we just relax and have fun, but the difficulty with recording a gig is to try and make it look like you are doing what you do normally, and try to do it normally, when in reality it is such an artificial situation. So there are compromises you have to make.
SoT: I think now that you have set a pretty high standard with the show that is on the DVD, what can most fans expect to see at the upcoming Rotherham Rocks and NEARFest gigs? Are fans going to be treated to a similar type Pallas show?
A.R.: I think it will be pretty similar. Obviously, the festival conditions are quite different and you are working around other people, time and equipment restrictions, and it's not really "your" show, it's "everybody's " show. So you've got to work around the limitations of time for sound checking, and particularly at NEARFest, we will be using unfamiliar equipment cause we can't ship all our own gear across. We also won't have our own lighting-we'll be sharing that with other people. So it won't be exactly the same, but pretty much a Pallas gig is a Pallas gig. We'll give it our best shot and have as much fun as we can, and hopefully the audience will enjoy it. Pallas is a good live band, and that is what we enjoy doing the most. The opportunity to play to people that we have not played to before is what we are always looking forward to. We'll give it 110% and see how it goes.
SoT: Is NEARFest going to be your first US show?
A.R.: First ever US show! Which is pretty bizarre considering how long the band has been going in its many shapes and forms, and especially since they recorded the first studio album in Atlanta of all places. It seems weird that this is the first time we will be across to play the US, but I think it is the perfect way to start.
SoT: We will have to make sure to have a beer together after your set at NEARFest!
A.R.: Definitely! I'm sure the band will be in the mood for a few beers after the show!
SoT: Have you worked out a set list for the upcoming festivals you will be playing, including NEARFest?
A.R.: Not entirely, but we've had some discussions. The thing is obviously we haven't got quite the length of time allotted on stage as if we were headlining, and certainly not as long as we had when we recorded the show for the DVD, which was an extra long set. Obviously we will try to represent a good cross section of Pallas material, so fans of The Sentinel up to The Cross and the Crucible can expect that we will play material that will satisfy everyone. It will be a decent cross section of what Pallas is all about.
SoT: Back to the DVD, how was it performing with original vocalist Euan Lowson on "The Ripper" and "Cut and Run"?
A.R.: It was great! I used to be a big fan of Pallas before I joined the band, and I had seen them live numerous times with Euan in the line-up. It was actually my idea to get Euan to perform with the band for the DVD…
SoT: Oh really?
A.R.: Yeah…when we first came up with the idea for the DVD, it was meant to be a document of the history of the band, and Euan was a really big part of that history, that has kind of been forgotten over time. We have been talking to him, and in fact had just done a gig where Euan came up and did a couple of songs with us as encores, and we thought, if he's up to it, why don't we ask him to come along and give people a flavor of what the old Pallas was like. So I got in touch with him and surprisingly he was up for it! Really, up until the day itself, we weren't sure if he was going to go through with it, and speaking to him afterwards he said he was really nervous throughout the day and very nearly jumped back in a cab and went back to the airport! I'm so glad he didn't, because I was there standing back by the mixing deck watching, and for me, when "The Ripper" started, I was right back in a club in Glasgow back in 1981 when I first saw the band, and it was awesome to be there again. Part of it was weird, I mean, watching my band with another singer, it was strange, but at the same time it felt perfectly right. I was so glad to be able to watch that and take part in it. It made the night special for us.
SoT: Seeing as you were a fan of the band back in the early days, what was the reaction of the crowd upon first seeing & hearing the band perform a song like "The Ripper" onstage, especially with Euan's theatrical antics and all the blood? Was it shock?
A.R. : It was shock. He used to use this sort of white back light, so rather than a sort of Genesis thing, it looked more like a Hawkwind or Alice Cooper kind of deal, very dark and menacing. The whole Pallas thing, Niall Mathewson used to stand in the back with his nose sticking out between his hair and his guitar slung, Graeme Murray hunched over his bass pedals, and Euan would come out and do his thing. It was just this extremely dark thing and quite genuinely terrifying at times. Just a sort of brooding atmosphere that was unlike anything I had ever seen. It was very tough to get into Pallas gigs back then in Glasgow because they were so popular. There was just something special that they had, and when the opportunity came along after Euan left, Pallas was the only band that I felt I could go for the singer job, as I was a bass player at the time. Something about them you know…
SoT: It's funny how you watch the new DVD, and you can really tell how the band has grown and matured over the years, simply by listening to the songs you sing compared to the few that Euan guests on. .
A.R. : Well , that what bands do! We have grown up a bit!
SoT: Can you tall a little bit about the late 70's/early 80's, when it seemed that progressive rock was seeing a resurgence in Europe thanks to bands like Marillion, IQ, Twelfth Night, Solstice, Pendragon, and of course Pallas?
A.R.: It was a really bizarre time, because it sounds mainstream media, you know, prog was dead and buried, and obviously Yes and Genesis were still big acts, filling arenas and selling lots of records. But it was all really regarded as yesterdays news, and punk and new wave was hot, so bands like us, Marillion, and Twelfth Night, we were all pretty much contemporaries with each other, and people could not believe that we were actually going to play this sort of thing. It was hard to initially get attention, although there was a big market out there for it, but not really a progressive rock scene. It was just part of the way the rock crowd went, the audiences we played to were just as likely to be into Rush or AC/DC as they were into Genesis or Yes to be quite honest…
SoT: I think that's still the case…
A.R.: Yeah. We were just a rock band that rested on that part of the spectrum, not necessarily defined by boundaries. The audience for Marillion was much the same; we also played the same places and had many of the same fans. But there was a real sort of special vibe going on at that time. I remember seeing Marillion and Pallas both around the same time at different places, and I could see that both bands has something special, a different kind of thing, but that they were both going places. Ther were a lot of bands around at the time, unfortunately many fell by the wayside. I didn't see Twelfth Night until quite later on, when Geoff Mann has already left and they had become a different band, so I really can't comment much on them. The so-called progressive scene only really existed in London, because the bands would all come together there, even though they all came from different part of the country, and started their following back in various parts of the UK. Pallas were based in Scotland and Northern England, Marillion in London and Oxfordshire, Pendragon the West Country, Solstice and IQ the South Country, so all the bands came from different places and built their following in their home areas, but Pallas and Marillion were the first to go national really.
SoT: Did you all know each other back then?
A.R.: We obviously all knew each other and played gigs together. Pallas and Marillion particularly were quite close, as early on we supported them in England and they supported us in Scotland. Both bands go back to the very early days and we even ended up on the same major label pretty much, so we always had a sort of "relationship" with Marillion.
SoT: I've had the opportunity to meet Fish on a few occasions-do you know him?
A.R.: I used to run into Fish a lot, particularly at the EMI offices. He's quite a character, in a real good way, and he's hard to avoid, I mean he's 6'5, he's a big lad. He has a wicked sense of humor, and certainly has a gift for the gab, especially in front of an audience. So few people have that talent, to be able to get quiet in a whole room and have people listen to you, it's just phenomenal.
SoT: Do you listen to any of the new music that the bands we mentioned are doing lately?
A.R: I haven't listened to Marillion since Brave, but I have listened to a few of Fish's albums. IQ has really grown up a bit, and has really found a style that is distinctly theirs. They have come a long way. It's amazing how many of us are still going actually- us, Pendragon, The Enid, IQ… in fact, we all played at a festival in London around the holidays. It was great to see that we are still around, all still doing it…really great.
SoT: Can you talk a little about when you first joined Pallas?
A.R.: Like I said I was a fan of Pallas, and at the time I was singing with a band called Abel Ganz, who had just completed a demo album and had a gig set up with the local radio station in Glasgow. The heavy rock DJ said to me "Did you know that Euan Lowson has left Pallas?" basically saying that I should apply for the job. It just seemed the right thing to do at the time. Oddly enough I had a friend who had a friend who knew somebody in the band, so I sent a tape, meanwhile Tom Russell the DJ phoned up Graeme Murray of Pallas and said that he knew a singer out of Glasgow that he should check out. Graeme and I finally got in touch with each other, but the whole process actually took a while before they actually made their minds up. Taking over, you know, Euan did his thing, and their was no point in replicating or trying to compete with what he did, so I just had to draw a line and do my own thing. I hate to use the Gabriel/Collins thing, but it was a similar situation. The good thing is most of the audience went with it and accepted me, so it's been great!
SoT: There was a large gap between the release of The Wedge in 1986 and Beat the Drum in 1999. What was the band up to during those years?
A.R.: We had left EMI, and kind of struggled a bit to come up with another album, and came close on a couple of occasions to signing with another major label but it never quite came to fruition. In the end it was purely financial, and we had to find other ways to make a living, and we just went our separate ways and did different things. But we never lost touch or had any differences; it just wasn't practical for us to continue for a while. So we kept in touch, and played around to the idea of doing something again, and made a couple of stabs at it. We re-released some material, and must have also demo'd about three albums worth of material in a five year period. Then finally, the catalyst was Ronnie Brown, the keyboard player, coming back into the fold. The chemistry was right again, and we found that the material came together and we had an album. Surprisingly we still had an audience, and the rest is history. We found that we were making enough money doing it, certainly enough to re-invest in another album and more equipment.
SoT: Beat the Drum and The Cross and the Crucible are both very strong albums…
A.R.: I think basically The Cross managed to distill all the various aspects that we explored in the past, the bigness of The Sentinel or the exploratory nature of The Wedge, kind of get it all together in one place. In our point of view, if someone asks what does Pallas sound like, just give them The Cross.
SoT: Who handles the bulk of the songwriting?
A.R.: It's pretty much a group thing. Pallas is a democracy, everybody writes, and everybody plays everyone else's instruments. We all play off each other and share ideas.
SoT: What are some of your favorite songs from the last two albums?
A.R.: Oh God! "Blinding Darkness" might actually be my favorite, as it's unlike anything we had ever really done before. It's kind of sequencer based, but it does something interesting with it. Although it's computer generated, it breaks free of that and has a sort of aggression freedom of it's own. And I really enjoy the lyric on it, which Graeme and I wrote 50/50-he wrote the verse and I wrote the chorus, which is usually the other way around.
SoT: The band is busy working on a new album I hear.
A.R.: That's correct! We are actually about mid-way through, sort of at critical mass point where we have all the ideas together and are fine-tuning them in the computer before we start the formal recording process. We've got the songs; it's just putting the final arrangements together before we start putting bass and drums down. It's slightly heavier than The Cross, but it's not The Cross Part 2, it's a different album. Not a massive departure from the sound we created on that album, but it's certainly not a country & western album.
SoT: And you're not trying to be Dream Theater right?
A.R.: No, were not trying to be Dream Theater! (laughs) We're definitely being Pallas!
SoT: Do you plan on having the new album out in time for NEARFest?
A.R.: I don't think it's going to be ready in time for that, but we might have a couple of songs ready to debut in the set. It would be nice to do that.
SoT: InsideOut is re-releasing your earlier albums here in the US-are these going to be any different from the European CD releases?
A.R.: No, they are going to be the same as the European versions.
SoT: Pallas has stayed true to the whole progressive rock scene now for over 20 years now. Where do you see yourselves, say 5 or 10 years from now?
A.R.: Oh, good God, I don't think any of us think ahead that far, and I don't think we looked ahead that far in the old days either! (laughs) We're only looking as far ahead as to the next thing we do. As long as we feel we are getting something out of it, and achieving something, not just going through the motions, then we'll continue to do it. At the moment, the vibe in Pallas is the best it's ever been, we get such a kick out of doing what we do, that I can't see stopping. So, we'll just have to see what happens. As long as it stays interesting for us then we'll keep on going. You never know what's around the corner!
SoT: I think the Internet can help with the bands longevity…
A.R.: Without the Internet, Pallas would not be around right now. We were able to find out audience, and they were able to find us, and a couple of years previous would not have been allowed to happen, but thanks to the Internet it has. We sell a lot of CD's through the online community, which makes it a more profitable experience for us, and we don't have to sell 60,000 albums to break even, which is how it was in the EMI days. We can now break even on 10,000 albums.
SoT: One last question-I was nosing around on the Pallas website the other day, and I saw all sorts of references to Deep Purple. What's that all about?
A.R.: (laughs) Pallas, when they started out, played a lot of covers, as most bands do. They used to play Yes and Genesis songs, but they really did very good Deep Purple tribute stuff. Frankly, we've been lately doing some Deep Purple numbers, and Pallas is probably the best Deep Purple tribute band you are likely to ever hear!
SoT: There you go!
A.R.: I don't know if the folks at NEARFest will get to hear us play a sample of that, but we've taken to playing the odd Deep Purple cover over the years.
SoT: It would be pretty interesting to hear you guys ripping into "Highway Star"!
A.R.: Yeah, really! At the last rehearsal we spent most of the time playing Deep Purple numbers! It's a lot of fun, and something that everyone in the band is into. And Niall does the most amazing Ritchie Blackmore impersonation that you will ever see.
SoT: We shall see what happens! Hopefully you'll have time to play one!
A.R.: You never know! Anyway, I have to run to another interview, so thanks very much and I shall see you in July.
SoT: Thanks Alan-we really appreciate it! See you then!