With The Tide Decides and now Tomorrow Will Tell the Story, Echo Us' two most recent releases, band mastermind Ethan Matthews is finely tuning his interpretation of modern progressive rock. Sea of Tranquility staff writer Mark Johnson recently caught up with Ethan to talk about the musical history of the band, and the creation of the songs & ideas that made up the stellar new release Tomorrow Will Tell the Story.
(originally published for www.prognaut.com )
Thank you for taking time away from your busy schedule to do an interview.
SOT – It was last August when we completed an interview together. You have finished the follow up to The Tide Decides, and Tomorrow Will Tell the Story does a great job of completing the set. How does it feel at this point?
EM: Great! It's been a wonderful album to be a part of. Definitely reached an area expression I've always longed for- it was the most natural album I've recorded for sure-
SOT – The addition of Henta has really expanded the sound of Echo Us. How did you find her and what was it about her voice that separated her from all the many female singers in the Pacific Northwest?
EM: Ya- it's been great working with her and I think was one of those times when things just all fall into place. There were a bunch of vocalists I got in touch with all over the west coast, but I think the main reason we went ahead with everything was that it clicked musically so well. The best thing is collaborating and working with people who are really genuine as well as driven. And also in this case spreading a hopeful message- Henta's vocals really complemented the energy of the album. Although I have not always been considered a beacon of hopefulness in music I think with this album it's energy really works well alongside what Henta does with her music- so we are of like or similar energy even though we are working in supposedly different styles. There's a lot of music and art that carries a depressing message these days, and this time for myself I wanted to really stay away from that and focus on something that I haven't in my music very much- it was a very natural process. Because The Tide Decides still had a lot more darkness about it- it had both dark and light in equal amounts I'd say. Tomorrow is more uplifting, but at first it wasn't planned- just happened that way and I followed it through and it led to where we are with it today.
SOT – Please remind the fans out there what is the concept behind The Tide Decides and now Tomorrow Will Tell the Story.
EM: It was pretty nebulous...when I started writing "Tomorrow" it kind of re-organized The Tide Decides in a thematic sense, and then after completing "Tomorrow" shortly after The Tide Decides was released it really took on a life of it's own. I would still say they are very connected- musically especially in the sense that "Tomorrow" is a great deal a re-ordering of The Tide Decides- which I can elaborate on later. But the idea that started on The Tide Decides was that of one soul/spirit/personality that creates a "world"; that world in our case might be earth. Earth represents a lot of dualistic thought-forms for this character and unfortunately becomes quite dark and confusing as things go on. But during all this questioning from birth to death in human terms there is a small distant light to a new possible place- and one can hear that in Bon Voyage pretty easily. It's the end but it's not the end. So thematically "Tomorrow Will Tell The Story" bridges a lot of the divides on The Tide Decides. And for me, from a personal perspective I have to just say that making the two albums were in many ways completely different. The Tide Decides was long and confusing just like it's character's journey, and "tomorrow" was relatively easy to write- very little about it I had to think very much about considering the base musicality. It is really showing our character that the journey is not so hard- and that it doesn't have to be a journey- it can be a destination where everything is simply more tranquil and in harmony. That is very against human nature, because we are all about concepts like time and thinking in linear terms- you know "it's not the destination it's the journey" that is important and all that. Your parents told you that! But they did because it's the primary way us humans have considered trying to live on a large scale. And look at the world we're in- wars, politics and nastiness it seems almost everywhere you look. But, I think often- the important things are timeless. They are the simple things we all want and desire- but we're taught to "fight fight fight!" and 'compete' and everything else. So to me, on an earthly sense "Tomorrow" can represent letting go of that. But, I also know the album works on a variety of levels beyond that- which is what I am really interested in- I am interested in what I don't know or understand about it...which can be likened to an experience of timelessness as well as the falling away of dualistic thought-forms.
SOT – Let's start with Out of the Blue. How did you create that effect with Henta's voice?
EM: It turned out to be just a matter of manipulating and triggering different words and pitches-. Sometimes this work is very easy to do, and sometimes takes some wriggling to get just right- The lead vocals/lyrics are primary and then I randomly pull material in from older Echo Us albums; Rawn Clark's work for example as well. The lyrics, lead vocals and music are primary though and always come first. As far as the processing of vocalizations I am actually using fairly crude software to do this by today's standards. There are other things such as "digital vocalist" software as well- autotune, etc. I don't have autotune. I think because of the way I went about things, without really knowing to much about what I was doing was helpful, as it always is. And to do it in a manual kind of fashion without harmonizers, autotune, etc is limiting and makes you more creative- with the words, the concepts and expression. My biggest challenge is to keep doing new things with old things and working within boxes and without- my consciousness has to be outside the technology I am using, otherwise I am just using the tech to regurgitate the same things over and over- so it's really important that this be a partial mystery to me. I am most intrigued as to why certain things work and over the years I've spent a lot of time deconstructing music of myself and everything else- understanding it as fully as I can, because after that you need something new, so you are forced to come up with something new- to keep the mysterious aspect. This is like a circle of events- to truly find mystery in music, because I think what we're really expressing is beyond words- like if I listen to Stravinsky's Strove-Tide Fair- that is a bit beyond words; actually- really beyond words! Sure we can analyze it now and try to pick out why it might work, but it's still just got something that is really hard to grasp- it still leaves one thinking "how'd he think of that"? And I think that's what it's all about-
SOT – That dreamy effect of the synths is just incredible and so original and different. How do you continue to remain so original with your productions when so many artists borrow so often from others?
EM: I like a lot of music that happens to stick more to formulas...the first part of the life of Echo Us back in Boston was all about that, but for me personally doing music I need more than that. I was in a situation with Greyhaven before Echo Us where our music was more experimental, and then I started writing "songs" and doing the pop thing which was completely different. This kind of made me a bit nuts after awhile- I think it has to do with following that dualistic nature like I was saying earlier- it led me into pretty nasty stuff personally...so after that I think my way of dealing with it was to get away and not care what I did or whether it would fit in to anyone's plan. That was back then too, when it maybe wasn't quite as crazy to say you were going to take a swing at making original music. Now a days for me I go with what intrigues me or seems to come to me very naturally rather than trying to make a product or sell a show.
In the same way I see no reason, for me personally at least, to make and put out music that I am not 110% behind. There are many little things that can make an album magical rather than just "great"; it can be as simple as a 1st or 2nd take lead vocal in the moment or it can take time and perseverance- and discovering one's own way of working with orchestration and arrangement. Being in a band was not enough of a musical challenge for me. It's an easy way out for someone like me.
Tech speaking the atmospheres are mostly home-grown, so if one goes out shopping for keyboard or other sound device their not going to find these sounds; maybe once in awhile something similar, but not the same or not used the same way- this is in a micro-sense some cases; because it's all these unique sounds working together that intrigues me. So there is a familiarity in the overall sound; but in the micro sense everything is original and used in it's own way. So I guess it's my last little stupid secret in a world where there are none:-) Part of it is just that I've spent a lot of time recording and resampling sounds of my own for 7 or 8 years, so I have a library of thousands of original sounds. It's getting almost to big now! I have to limit myself to a degree, so for every album I make new banks and directories of sounds, again mostly using the crude methods above. I really also love deep ambient and new age music and classical musics as well, so I guess that I am rare that I am combining elements of that with rock music and even metal. Some of the main string or pad-like sounds that provide background and harmony are just my programmings of old Roland, Korg, and other synthesizers though. I still don't use software for everything, and like to have as many varieties and timbre possibilities as I can. And I think those older digital boxes do a better job than the software at creating a richer sound overall. I also like to be at least a little mobile when working. Keeping a little further away from a computer screen is a good thing.
SOT – Certainly Henta adds to that originality with her singing. In addition, Rawn Clark's Kabbalistic canticle adds diversity to the album. What was the inspiration for this additional element?
EM: I found Rawn's work after composing and recording most of the album- including "This is the dream, the dream is you" which was kind of an epiphany to me how it happened. I didn't really know anything about the kind of thing that Rawn does- which is based in transcendental meditation and things of that nature, although I've always followed to some degree metaphysics. I had an experience with that song where the chorus came to me without knowing what it was and then having to figure it out as I went, because I'd never heard the term YHVH, or YHWH- I grew up in a small town and went to Presbyterian church and I did pay attention. Judaic terms were not something I ever recall coming across, and church life was not terribly deep or involved in study; certainly the Talmud was never mentioned! I really thought this song was ridiculous when I wrote it- I was like "you want me to sing what???". But I went ahead and followed it through- it was the best recording session of my life I'd say...and it was just me here....dancing around the room having a ridiculous ecstatic experience- that's really when this is fun...it's like being on autopilot and letting things just come.
SOT – Beyond the Horizon is probably my favorite song on the album. Which is yours?
EM: Probably I have to go with the above experience- but the whole album is very good to me. I really love how Out Of The Blue develops out of nothing and Ear of Eras because of it's upbeat energy and rhythm.
SOT – Both of the Archaeous of Water epics paint grand epic strokes. Please tell us more of the story and inspiration behind these epics.
EM: The four parts sort of seemed to just slide together best the way they ended out, so in that sense they were all separate, except for the instrumental "echoes of eras" was more deliberate in that I felt "this is the dream" continuing on and developing into an instrumental piece. All the parts were written in the order they appeared, but the inspirations, whatever they were came in stretched out intervals over months. "Ears of Eras" was where the entire album started. Although I tend to have big breaks between writing, there is always lots of work to do in orchestration and sometimes arrangement. It's kind of like editing a novel which depending on the author and book can take a long long time. I don't really view album production like I am working on a rock thing, or a progressive thing, or metal- so I don't really keep a roadmap of conventions. Doing this is closer to scoring a movie that doesn't exist- but I don't approach the music that way so it's more akin to writing and editing a novel.
SOT – There seems to be more piano on this than the last album. Were you trying to bring in more natural/acoustic sounds? Iagla is a great example of a song where it is used very effectively.
EM: No, not really. It just seemed to fit the mood this time. There are no real drums this time, mostly because I didn't think they really fit the mood. I love piano in many ways these days and wish I had space for a real one here, but the past few years I am always on the go and have enough to lug around. Nomadic lifestyle in a way.
SOT – Another highlight of the album is the string like synths, flute, chimes and other woodwind effects. The Mirror in the Window is a great example. These instruments add to the dynamics of the overall sound. Do you want to talk about the inspiration for that song?
EM: That's a hard one to talk about- it's a "quiet" song so there's all this space to do things with dynamically. It's one of the only songs where I was really trying to sum something up I think, but it was still a very natural song to write. It's always fun working with Raelyn and recording harp- it's a challenge for both of us getting it to work with all the electronics but I think we really hit it this time. Henta's and my vocals were really just scratch tracks but they worked so well together we kept them the same. I think the song has many levels- it's sort of like the nadir of when you look through a bunch of windows and mirrors back to back and the images just keep going...and looking at that from a spiritual point or sense- that all you are is part of all that is, and you are ALL of All That Is at the same time, because we're all connected. It's also maybe that the male and female identity is not so important- it's a beautiful duet and the voices become one. The kind that reminds me of old pop or standards but with this updated modern edge. I really love that one!
SOT – The title track that closes the album is also another favorite off the album. You and Henta do a great job interweaving vocals so well. The synths are also some of the best on the album. Do you want to discuss the song in more detail?
EM: It's the only song of Echo Us with one groove all the way through I think! But I think it was appropriate to do it like that. My original thoughts were that it was just to polished and commercial and all that, but I've always maintained that whatever comes the most naturally is usually the best- but even with this one it's very musically interesting to me, and actually the arrangement is so smooth and natural feeling I was just drawn in by that and the way the orchestration develops.
SOT – Will you collaborate with Henta again in the near future?
EM: It's certainly possible-
SOT – So what is next after some time off?
EM: working on that- I've reached a point where the past few years between this and other things in my life I kind of worked myself crazy. I am still needing reflection or something, but what with doing all the other stuff now- working on video and web stuff and everything Echo Us is a full time job if I am working at total capacity. For a few years it was always 60-70+ hour weeks of work on everything in my life and now I am trying to hold back a little and take it easy. I am always writing music but only follow certain things to release that I think are really worth sharing with the world, that I think can have a positive or altering kind of effect. I am a real believer in quality over quantity and these days seem to instantly know if I am on to something creative- if not there is plenty of other work that usually needs tending to. I also love to read as well. Just trying to discover new things and that doesn't always directly relate to music; but I find it often does come back around to music- because that's my natural mode of expression.
SOT – So is a new album in the works or do you see other outside collaborations developing?
EM: Well- both actually. I am presently starting to plan some recording sessions, and am hoping all those pan out for the first half of the year. A variety of projects on the periphery, and they are all engineering gigs- which I really enjoy, because these are projects that I am also into musically. I did one last year here in my studio and it was a lot of fun. All this stuff is yet to be released; one was for Degree Absolute and another, like said- in the works; it's all upcoming releases, so I'll leave it at that-
On the subject of Echo Us- Yes, there is lots of music bubbling right now; it's [next album] growing into a much more instrumental work but will still feature a number of "songs" like Tomorrow Will Tell The Story. I think it's ultimately difficult to write concise songs, even with more instrumental parts- I mean a "pop" sort of thing like really is all over "Tomorrow" with the sing along choruses and all that. To do that well all the time is just not possible- and perhaps I would get tired of it still. So, since I've only had maybe two "pop" sort of things over the past couple years I just began writing lots of bits of instrumental material, and over the past month have added loads to it. It feels strange because this time I have a sort of "game-plan"; connecting up these themes instead of connecting the lyrics as much. It feels more 'deliberate' of a process this time- and I am way back into my guitar playing, now even playing real bass, nylon string and electric. BUT- it's much more symphonic- and folksy/Americana almost. The first track will surely be over 20 minutes! I love utilizing my guitar again so much. The past 3 albums I've done were so highly electronic that over half of what I was doing was on a computer- I'd play and sing and have other people too- but the playing itself wasn't so involved while the production was complex. This is the opposite- more complex music with less trinkets but a warmer sound, and hardly anything resembling a drum kit- bits of percussion and a few grooves only. The lyrics that are there point to similar things as Tomorrow- I think part of this will be called "all that is" or something like that. it feels like it's "post"...like the past two albums were "pre" and this one is post or "after".
I feel I was fortunate over the years in that I got into computer-driven music much after I learned to play a variety of styles of music and developed a decent proficiency as a musician. Now going back to it more it feels like a return-visit but with all the experience of dealing with technology and arrangement the past bunch of years.
SOT – Are there other artists in the Northwest or beyond which you have an interest in collaborating with in the future?
EM: Oh sure- I can think of some if I am looking. As far as Echo Us I am asking people who I think will really fit with that as far as recording parts I've written. I haven't written music with anyone really since about 2001. Recently I did a little bit of preliminary part writing / production work for someone and it unfortunately didn't work out! So maybe I'll stick to the engineering bit for now. I love working with people- I make friends that way! There is no other way for me because if I had a really active social/family life- and maybe it's my stupid fear- a really active life with lots of people would get in the way of my ability to focus on music. Actually, that's what happened to me back in college- got too involved with people! Result was non-productivity. Result was disastrous! I tend to find escape through writing music- I want to go inward to reach outward as far as my creativity goes and it's been the only way I can really operate.
SOT – Is there anything I've left out of the interview that you wish to discuss?
EM: I think we've covered some cool stuff!
SOT – Thank you again for your time and answers to these questions.
EM: Thanks to Sea of Tranquility and Prognaut.com ! And thank you again as well Mark! It's always a pleasure,
(Click here to read our review of Tomorrow Will Tell the Story)