Formed in 1989 by Brett Kull, Raymond Weston, Christopher Buzby, Thomas Hyatt, and Paul Ramsey, Echolyn is often regarded by genre enthusiasts as one of the best American progressive rock bands of all time. With such incredible albums as As the World, Suffocating the Bloom, and their 50 minute, album-long piece, Mei, it's easy to hear why. SOT's Jordan Blum recently had a chance to investigate the past, present, and future of Echolyn with three of its most outstanding members.
SOT: So how is the new album coming along? What is it called? Is it conceptual in any way or organized as grouped pieces (I see that there are four distinct "sides," for example)?
Thomas Hyatt: The songs are all written and for the most part recorded. We still have a few ideas that we want to re-visit. It's not necessarily a conceptual piece, but perhaps a mood piece. We are trying to arrange the song order in a sort of cohesive way. We have had some working titles, but they tend to change as the project evolves.
Brett Kull: It's been a lot of work. We've always tried to head into different areas to find inspiration. There has been a struggle with this one because of time and needing to "better" ourselves in the writing, recording, and performance area. Actually, "better" is not necessarily the right word; we all just need to be on the same page so this project feels cohesive.
SOT: How would you describe the new album's sound compared to your previous work? Does it relate more towards one genre than another (prog, rock, pop, classical, etc)?
TH: To me, this album has more of a singer/songwriter approach with a trippy rock 'n' roll edge. The songs are pretty highly arranged, so I am sure there will be those who consider it to be progressive.
Ray Weston: For me, the album picks up right where The End is Beautiful left off. It's all of the above, with our special twist.
BK: Melody, melody, melody! Strong arrangements, great playing, harmony, [and] the snozzberries TASTE LIKE snozzberries! Did I mention melody?
SOT: You guys have been working on the album since 2007, correct? Why has it been in development for so long?
TH: It's been mostly an issue of time and availability. We all have our jobs and families as our main priorities in life. However, we still want to make the best album possible, so we are approaching the album as if it was our full time job. We don't want it to sound like something we put together in our spare time. If it's not great, it's not worth doing.
BK: It's hard to make music that doesn't suck.
SOT: What made you want to create this new album in the first place?
TH: It's just our passion in life. To make music with each other while we still can. We're all lucky to have known each for over 20 years and we enjoy what we create.
RW: It's what we do. Hopefully we will always have something to say and write.
BK: I can't stop making music. It's what I do. I love making music with Ray, Tom, Chris and Paul. It's just a pain in the ass sometimes.
SOT: Will you be touring it around the country once it's completed (or, at least around our home area of Pennsylvania)?
TH: Right now, the focus is on finishing the album. Once we have the CD and LP in our hot little hands, we'll start discussing what the next move should be.
BK: Can't think about the future; [we] must live in the present.
SOT: Your first "break-up" came after the release of As the World (a phenomenal record, by the way). What sparked this separation?
TH: After we completed ATW, I decided being in the music industry really wasn't my thing. I have always loved playing music and playing with Echolyn, but I wasn't enjoying the experience of being part of a record label. Sony had pretty much given up on us and the album, and I needed a full time job to pay the bills. The mantra of the band at the time was "all or nothing," and I knew I couldn't put in the effort needed to make the kind of music we set out to do.
RW: We were all fried from the Sony experience. Not to down Chris or Tom, but I think Brett, Paul, and I still had some fight in us.
BK: The break was good, deserved, and needed. After having the band be the focal point of our lives for 5 years, we needed to adjust the lens. We tried our best to make the band a success. It's funny that after we stopped "trying," it has become more successful.
SOT: What made you guys rejoin a few years later and record Cowboy Poems Free?
RW: Time apart to grow as people [and] musicians. We cleared our heads and our closets and got back to who we are great friends who enjoy making music together.
BK: We found that beyond all the business and major record label baggage, we actually still liked just making music together. How can you not want to hang with your friends anymore?
SOT: In the second half of the 90s, there was Still/Always Almost. How did the sound and direction of that band compare to Echolyn?
RW: I don't think it did. Brett, Paul and I were raw, like a big open wound, venting in disgust. [It was] "in your face, take that" kind of rock.
BK: No comparison to Echolyn at all. Ray, Paul and I share something magical in a different sense than we do with Tom and Chris. It is an underlying corruption and an ability to embrace it and speak its name. No fear.
SOT: When you guys did reform in 2000, Tom Hyatt wasn't included? Can you discuss why?
Brett: I tried to contact Tom a few times for Cowboy Poems and Mei, but he was incommunicado and "of" the world.
TH: I wasn't ready at the time. I was trying to get a career underway; I had just bought a house with my (then) wife. There was also still some bad blood for me at the time as well. Basically, there was an incident in the post break up that I still held a grudge over.
SOT: How was Mei conceptualized and crafted? What is it about (if anything)? An album-long piece is sort of a staple of the genre, but you guys created an incredible one for sure. Click here to view Mei on YouTube
RW: Thank you. We always try to do something a little different from album to album. That time out, we discussed writing one long song. We were careful to make all the parts work together [as well as] separately. I seem to remember conversations about whether or not we were doing the right thing. We did.
BK: It's a journey song through the hell we make. It is about love, hope, and redemption.
SOT: Tom officially returned to the band in 2003. Can you comment on what lead to his return?
TH: Brett managed (this time) to track me down and invite me to join the band on stage for NEARfest 2002. When I came to the studio to rehearse, Brett played Mei for me. It reminded of why I joined the band in the first place. I was pretty blown away by how much the band had evolved since ATW. I don't remember if I was really asked back so much as I just wouldn't leave after that .
RW: Alcohol and a gentlemen's club.
BK: Tom was always welcome back. We all missed him. He finally was not scared anymore to hang with us.
SOT: From what I've read, The End is Beautiful is symbolic of your second break-up in 2005. Is that true? Would you say that Echolyn did officially disband around that time? If so, why?
TH: I think title of the album was misconstrued. We really weren't planning on breaking up. The song "The End is Beautiful" was just the centerpiece of the album and it kind of echoed the overall theme. Sometimes ending things (a relationships, careers, habits, etc) is better than suffering through and holding on to whatever is causing pain in your life.
RW: I never heard that. The words were about an old girlfriend of mine, way back in the early 80's. I wanted her to know what life would be like once we broke up. I originally called the song "someone to hurt," but Brett felt that the line "the end is beautiful" would work better as a title and the rest is history.
BK: We actually did not disband after that album. We continued to play shows (all of them damn good). The band has become an island we can all sometimes travel too to dance and howl at the moon. It's always been like that actually (but even more so these past 11 years). I like the fact that when we are not on that island, we can still see it on the horizon and wave to it. It's there for whenever we need to take a trip and put our feet in the sand of what we've made.
SOT: When not working on music, what are some of your hobbies? For example, I know that some members of Echolyn taught music at various colleges.
TH: My full time job is in the pharmaceutical industry, working in clinical research. I'm also kind of movie and comedy geek. I follow Patton Oswald, Louis CK, among others, like I would Tool, Radiohead, or Rush. I'm also a PS3 junkie. I could play BioShock and Dead Space 2 a thousand times over. I've had a passing sort of interest in psychology, WWII history, and astronomy, although I probably couldn't tell anyone the basics on anyone of the three topics .
RW: My wife says I need to find a hobby. I think she wants me out of the house.
BK: No one teaches music at any colleges. Chris teaches middle school music to hormonal youngsters. I teach audio basics at two colleges in the area and work as a producer/engineer/songwriter/musician for most of the time.
SOT: Which Echolyn album is your favorite and why?
TH: So far, for me, it is Mei. In a way, I am glad I didn't play on that album because I can listen to it as an objective listener. I actually listen to it for my own enjoyment. To me, it's a concept album with the concept made by the listener.
RW: I do like all the past records. My favorite is always the one we are working on. Once the album is finished, it is on its own, like kicking your oldest kid out the door to enjoy the world.
BK: Mei is my fav. This new one is pretty kickin', too.
SOT: What are some of your favorite albums in general?
TH: I'll try to narrow it down. For me, the ones that have always stayed in my play list have been (in no particular order):
A Night at the Opera Queen
Physical Graffiti _ Led Zeppelin
OK Computer Radiohead
Abbey Road The Beatles
10,000 Days Tool
RW: Thin Lizzy - the whole catalogue, Black Sabbaths - Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, Faith No More - King For A Day, Slipknot Slipknot, and Camel - Moonmadness (just to name a few).
Brett: Elliot Smith is one my favorite songwriters. Of course, The Beatles, still. I listen to a ton of music; most of it [is] bad, but every once in a while, I hear something that makes me want to take my clothes off and run around like a puma. Elbow writes some beautiful music. Jon Brion, Harry Nilsson, Debussy, Francis Dunnery's The Gully Flats Boys. Thousands of little sparks shining through the crap of American Idol and The latest proclaimed rock star.
SOT: Which artists influenced the sound of Echolyn?
TH: It's hard to pinpoint any specific bands that have influenced the direction of our music. It's really not a conscious thing. Every now and then when working on a particular section of a song, we'll say, "Hey! Let's go back to that Zeppelin part" or "What would Elbow do in this part?" But for the most part, the songs tend take on the identity of the individual contributions.
RW: We all bring a taste of our favorite things to put into pot.
BK: Everything influences me, [including] books, movies, conversations, music, and the fucking wind and moon. A sideways glance from a friend, [too]. They all weigh on me.
SOT: How did you guys arrange the multipart harmonies and vocal lines utilized on tracks like "As the World"? I always refer to that style as "Gentle Giant vocals" even though it goes back centuries.
BW: Beer and some imagination.
SOT: Are you involved in any other musical projects these days?
TH: I also play with another band called Electric Yellow, which is more along the lines of Jam Band music, which is a good challenge in and of itself. I like the idea of coming up with things on the fly, even during a live show.
Brett: I work with musicians everyday, all day, [and I]play music all the time and love it. There are some very talented folks out there and I learn from them daily.
SOT: Ray and Brett, how did you two decide who would sing the different parts on different songs?
RW: It depends on who gets to it first. Brett and I have always been great at bouncing ideas off each other.
BK: Whoever has the glint in their eye gets it. I trust Ray with anything takes he on. He always keeps me on my toes.
SOT: Looking back on your career, what legacy do you think Echolyn has left on the genre? Can you pinpoint what made/makes Echolyn special and unique?
TH: Interesting question. I think Echolyn has a good fusion of singer/songwriter sensibilities, combined with the symphonic arrangement associated with progressive rock. For the most part, we have always done things our way without allowing anyone to influence our direction. We have never considered ourselves a "prog" band per say. Really, we are the sound of 5 very different musicians with very different backgrounds who have a great musical chemistry.
RW: I don't know about a legacy, but what makes us unique would be simply the five of us.
BK: We've never just slagged off or put out rubbish. I feel our music has gotten better as we search for bettering our craft. We care about what we do and have never done anything just for the sake of itself. We are NOT perfunctory people. We enjoy being together and that shows in our music. We also kick ass live and have blown bands off the stage with pure energy. We've been kicked off stages because we are better than those we share the stage with. That's not arrogance; it's a fact worth telling because we don't take what we do lightly.
SOT: Do you feel that Echolyn was one of the pioneers of the American prog rock resurgence of the early 90s?
TH: We were definitely a part of it. I think we helped in the expansion of progressive in terms of using it as a song writing tool rather than using as an instrumental showcase. Some of the more popular progressive bands of 90's were more about instrumental speed and prowess of the players. I think we provided a more song based alternative. I'm still uncomfortable with Echolyn being referred as a progress band. I think if the average listener heard that we were a "progressive," band they might not listen to us in the first place. Wilco is labeled as "country" on iTunes, but they are definitely far from it. I think any band that has a unique sound is progressive. Most people can tell an AC/DC song the moment they hear the first guitar riff. To me, that is progressive.
BW: We are by far the best and easily one of the first American progressive bands of the Gen Xers. We started in 1989 and built the scene from nothing. It was so refreshing to meet folks that liked what we did and spread the word. We played with anyone and everyone and worked our butts off playing tons of gigs. We worked every day building a fan base, writing songs, rehearsing and playing live. I know I've never seen anyone in the progressive genre (at that time) doing what we did. We were a real band that played in dive bars and connected with the local drunks. We played every gig with piss and vinegar to own the room. I can still smell the smoke. Pioneers?? To us, it was rock and roll with a twist. It was Live at Leeds in spirit and real work. We felt at home playing with grunge bands, remnant metal bands from the 80's, or local singer/songwriters. I don't know if there was or has been a resurgence of progressive rock music. There are certainly fans out there (like me). I know for a fact that the largest record company in the world (Sony Music) went fishing to test the waters on the genre's popularity in the 90's and caught nothing worth keeping.
SOT: What's next after the new album is released?
TH: Hard to say really. We have been focused on this album so long, we really haven't discussed what our plans are for the future.
Ray: More music
SOT: Well, this has been quite a privilege, gentleman. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me. I can't wait to hear the new album.
TH: Sure, Jordan
RW: Thanks, Jordan.
BK: Take it easy, Jordan.