US progressive rock act Mars Hollow made their spectacular self-titled debut in 2010, but with the arrival of the new album World in Front of Me, this band is set to be considered one of the major players on the contemporary prog scene. Sea of Tranquility's Pete Pardo & Mark Johnson recently conducted a roundtable interview with band members Kerry Chicoine (bass, vocals), John Baker (guitars, lead vocals), and Jerry Beller (drums, percussion, vocals) to talk about the new album, touring plans, and the state of progressive rock.
SoT: What was it like to work with producer Billy Sherwood on the new album?
Kerry: Working with Billy was like shooting coke, meth, and coffee all at once! All seriousness aside, Billy was incredible to work with -- he's a super-high-energy guy and he knows his stuff inside out. He's very honest and direct, brimming with creative ideas and suggestions but always keeping an open mind. And of course he delivered us a great-sounding contemporary progressive rock album for which we'll be forever grateful. Anyone reading this who wants to work with Billy: contact him now! He is truly one of a kind and a great guy all 'round.
John: Working with Billy Sherwood was good because he let us do our thing and we let him do his thing. There were not any head scratching moments where anyone was at a loss as to how to proceed or what to do next. We saw a lot less of each other than you might think - which exemplifies on the trust and efficiency we had.
Jerry: Billy is very quick but right spot on. You will do a take and even though you think you should do another one he will tell you that it's golden. He has a very fine-tuned ear and his attention is right there at the moment, and not just putting down tracks and picking the best one. Plus he's a great person to work with. We were friends with him from the very first production meeting. He's a very talented and gifted musician and producer.
SoT: There seems to be a maturity that has settled in on the songwriting and musicianship areas - can you talk about the last year since the debut and what has changed within the band? Do you feel you all have grown as musicians and songwriters?
Kerry: The first album felt like a true debut to me; while some of the songs were total band collaborations, a few were driven by individual contributions which the band then put their stamp on. There are extremes ranging from the bubblegum-prog of "In Your Hands" to the classic rock sounds of "Wild Animal" to full-blown epics like "Eureka".
We started writing material for "World in Front of Me" in October 2009 just after we'd finished the first album; from the start the songs had a vibe to them, a sense of compositional cohesion that wasn't present on the first album. We all could feel it as it was happening; with the exception of a couple of things, the album is a true band collaboration -- everyone contributed ideas. The songs were born without too many labor pains and the baby was delivered quickly. I attribute it to the sense of confidence we all felt due to the overwhelming response to the debut.
And with all humility, I feel we are just scratching the surface of what this band is capable of as far as songwriting goes.
As for the musicianship, we've played a bunch of gigs since 2008 and a couple of festivals and that can only help sharpen our technical skills. We're not a technical band, anyway -- we can't do that Dream Theater math-type stuff; trust me, if we could, we would!
John: The longer you age booze, the smoother it becomes; and that's what happened from record one to record two. The band has a more cohesive quality, simply due to being around longer than when we were making album number one. Maybe next time we'll deliberately lose the recipe.
Jerry: I guess one of the factors is time. We have been with each other for four years now and have an understanding of the way that each member writes. Also some of these songs were in the works right after the first CD came out. We had time to play these songs live to work out parts and I think that gives us the best results before starting the recording process. Sometimes just the excitement and energy of playing live gives you unexpected moments when magic happens, and you just know it's great and it needs to become part of the music. So, it's time and experience that make that difference.
SoT: Who are your heroes?
Kerry: Mike Keneally, Keith Emerson, Todd Rundgren, Andy Partridge, Frank Zappa, my Dad. I owe Mike Keneally so much for opening my mind as far as songwriting and musicianship goes -- incredible guy.
John: The two music people that I always come back to with gratitude are: Glen Campbell and John McLaughlin.
Jerry: Band-wise there are so many, but here we go: ELP, YES, GENESIS, GENTLE GIANT, JETHRO TULL, KANSAS, RUSH, UK, BEATLES... As far as drum heroes: Carl Palmer, Neil Peart, Barrymore Barlow, Alan White, Phil Collins, Ringo Star, Buddy Rich... I could go on for ever
SoT: Which contemporary bands are your favorites?
Kerry: There's a lot of newer stuff I have yet to hear but lately I've been loving District 97's debut; I still haven't heard a lot of the '70s classic prog bands and I'm just discovering Gentle Giant, believe it or not. So much great music out there!
John: Guitarist Alex Machacek is a mind-blowing contemporary musician. There are plenty of fantastic musicians out there everywhere. The bar is always rising at various speeds and it's all based on what came before.
Jerry: I like new artists who are creative, like Maroon 5 and I also like Pink: she has a lot of interesting things in her arrangements.
SoT: How does it feel to be on an up and coming label like 10T, who seem to have a real eye & ear for talent?
Kerry: We're very flattered to share the 10T roster alongside such mainstays as Frogg Café, The Rebel Wheel, Little Atlas, Man on Fire, etc. Steve Carroll and Jeff Hodges at 10T have been very good to us, delivering exactly what they promised in a fair and honorable manner. They have a great ear for new talent as well.
John: Being on10T Records is great because they have genuine trust in letting us do our thing. We try and play ball with each other in a do-it-yourself world where there is not much money to be made.
Jerry: It is great to have the opportunity to be involved with 10T. We aren't just business partners, but friends and yes, they do have an ear for talent. Look at the roster line-up - very cool bands. Variety is also the key. They pick artists from the same general style of music but each one sounds completely different. That is also so special. And they don't pick sound-alike bands. Each band has its own unique sound. Steve and Jeff are great guys and marketing experts.
SoT: Tell your fans when and where they can see you this year.
Kerry: So far in 2011 we've played Mexicali Prog and RoSFest; next up is our CD release party in Los Angeles on July 29th with Forever Twelve and The Source (see www.marshollow.com for details coming soon). We're also planning another ProgFury event but it's still in the embryonic stage and may or may not happen. Other than that, we're strategizing with a couple of east coast bands to try to pull off a west coast tour but with finances being what they are, I'll be surprised if we can pull it off. It's hard out there for a prog band these days.
John: In what's left of 2011, we're trying to add Europe and Canada to our list of places to play. Of course we'll be playing in Los Angeles and hopefully again in Mexico where the response and knowledge is heavenly. Mexico rocks our world!
SoT: Where would you most like to play?
Kerry: Europe, Mexico, South America, Canada, Japan, Australia, China, Antarctica, Mars, you name it. We will play anywhere, anytime we can as long as the basics (travel, lodging, per diem) are provided; hopefully we'll get to travel abroad but it may very well turn out to be a pipe dream with the global economy in its current state.
John: We fantasize about playing Mexico City sometimes...
Jerry: Europe, Japan, South America... we always like playing in the states, too, of course! We have had great audiences here in the states. Great fans!
SoT: If you could tour the world with 2 other contemporary prog acts for a killer triple bill, who would they be?
Kerry: District 97 and Transatlantic would be amazing; of course, Transatlantic would have to reduce their set to one or two songs!
John: The acts I would love to tour with are not considered contemporary artists.
Jerry: Rush or Yes would be the first. Transatlantic would be another one, as would Kansas. Tull would be great, too. Sorry I have so many bands that I would love to perform with it's hard to choose!
SoT: Is the theme from 'World in Front of Me' drawn from a band member's life experience?
Kerry: All of the lyrics on the new album were written by lead vocalist/guitarist John Baker and I suspect they have a great deal to do with his life experience.
John: All the themes on the record are drawn from band member's lives except for the song "Voices."
SoT: Which song, out of your discography, is your favorite to play live?
Kerry: We all enjoy playing "World in Front of Me", it's a high-energy, fun song with a lot of enjoyable band interactions and a pleasing structure. When we hit the end, it really feels like the summation of a journey.
John: "Wild Animal" is among my favorites to play live.
Jerry: There are a few. "Wait for Me" is definitely one of them "Walk on Alone" is another one that's really fun, as are "Dawn of Creation" and title track off the new CD. All of these have great ebbs and tides to them.
SoT: Most prog fans seem to like to hear new music from new bands that pay homage to the old favorites from the 70's-how do you feel about that?
Kerry: I feel great about it 'cause that's the kind of music we're influenced by and if people like it, all the better. We grew up during that era so it's inevitable we're going to incorporate those influences into our own music. Our sole focus is writing the best rock songs we can and we all agree the music from that era is incredible -- very few songwriters these days can match the level of detail and creativity of the classic '70s bands. We're trying.
John: With Prog, I most admire the '70s style, but do not consciously try to pay homage to it. However, I fully admit that there is a lot of the '70 sound in Mars Hollow.
Jerry: I think that the 70s was a great period for music, and it is where this all started, but it still is progressing with style changes and the mixing of different music genres.
SoT: There's a wealth of classic sounds on the new CD-can you talk a little bit about the various guitars, basses, keyboards, etc. that were used during the recording of the album?
Kerry: One of the main reasons I wanted to work with Billy Sherwood is the fantastic bass sounds he produces; I especially love his bass sound on the Circa: albums. All I did was walk in and tell Billy, "Do whatever you want, whatever sounds good to you sounds good to me!" He really nailed that classic copper-wire-unfurling-in-outer-space Rickenbacker sound.
Also, we were really lucky in that Ken Rich of Ken Rich Sounds (a vintage keyboard shop with clients ranging from Benmont Tench to Lenny Kravitz) let us borrow Lenny Kravitz' touring B3 and Leslie and it sounded monstrous, the thing had a life of its own. Thank you, Ken Rich!
John: On the new record, Steve's various toys and ever-changing keyboard setups were always up to something. The highlight was the use of a real Hammond B3 and Leslie, which was freely loaned to us by an extremely generous "Ken Rich Sounds". Then, Kerry's Rickenbacker bass through Billy Sherwood's bass rig, my Godin electric/acoustic guitar with guitar synth through a neutral Roland Jazz-Chorus amp. The drums are Billy's recording kit from DW with the addition of a Jerry cymbal and tom. The same bass and electric guitar were used throughout, with the addition of a mandolin and an old Ovation acoustic guitar. We didn't have a big arsenal of basses and guitars all lined up near the console. Billy did, but those were his instruments.
Jerry: I used a DW kit with Zildjian Cymbals, orchestra bells, and Roland electric drums. I also used shakers and odds and ends.
SoT: Have you heard any of your songs on the radio yet, or seen any of your CDs in a record store? What was it like to finally experience success?
Kerry: I can't remember the last time I was in a record store or listened to terrestrial radio, truth be told. But it's cool seeing the albums on Amazon or eBay and hearing songs being played on a number of internet radio stations. I've been involved with a lot of projects over the years that received virtually no attention at all, so the response has been gratifying. It feels great knowing people are anticipating what we're doing next and we feel a sense of responsibility that wasn't there before. It's awesome, frankly.
John: We've heard our stuff on some radio programs - sometimes with interviews - and are always thrilled and amazed. I've never seen a CD for sale in any brick and mortar stores, although I have looked. I'll bet there are a few in used record store bins somewhere. That would be a very cheap thrill indeed. I would take photo of that for laughs. I can't tell if we've experienced success.
Jerry: I have seen our CD is a few stores here in LA and have also heard songs on the Radio, but mainly internet radio stations, Of course, that is the new wave of listening anyway, right? It is great to see this style of music getting out there again.
SoT: The music industry has changed so much over the last few years, and seeing as it's hard for progressive rock bands to really generate a ton of sales or sell out major arenas (unless you are Rush, Yes, Dream Theater, etc). What is the ultimate goal that you have for Mars Hollow?
Kerry: Realistically, the ultimate goal is to be able to record a third album without breaking the bank. So far everything has been funded out of our own pockets but it all adds up and we're reaching a point where we have to take a step back and ask, "Can we afford to continue to do this at this level?" We will always be able to write songs -- songs are free -- but we might have to take things down a notch and start doing things like producing and selling the albums ourselves. We have pretty shallow pockets and retirement looms over all of us.
Unrealistically, the ultimate goal is a bona-fide classic rock radio hit leading to major world tours opening for Muse and/or Rush. Like that's gonna happen to a bunch of guys in their 50s!
Truthfully, we're in this strictly for the songwriting and everything else is gravy; whatever happens, happens, we're good with it. We need to continue to watch our budgets and not sink too much into what might be considered an outmoded business model. It's given us a lot to think about.
John: My ultimate goal for Mars Hollow is simply to keep the sincerity and carbonation going as long as possible.
Jerry: There needs to be a push from the Prog labels to the radio stations. Fans and everyone involved needs to get this style of music out there.
SoT: I know you've just released 'World in Front of Me', but what is next for the band?
Kerry: First up is our CD release party in July, then we have audio/video of our RoSFest performance to edit for eventual release on DVD, then we start writing the next album, all the while looking for higher-profile gigs to promote "World in Front of Me". It's keeping us busy, please believe -- and we wouldn't want it any other way.
John: We'd love to play warm-up on someone's tour... Someone really, really, really, really famous.
Peter Pardo & Mark Johnson
(Click here to read our reviews ofWorld in Front of Me)