One of the most interesting things about listening to music, for me, is thinking about the nature of creativity. Over the last few years, I've given some thought to the nature of artistic influence and how artists put together ideas as inspired by other people's work. As I approached the opportunity to speak with Michael Romeo, I began to wonder about how he considers these questions of influence. After all, Symphony X has routinely turned to great works of literature--The Odyssey, Paradise Lost, the works of Edgar Allan Poe ("King of Terrors" and three tracks from The Dark Chapater)--for inspiration. Since we often discuss the musical influences on Symphony X, I thought I'd take up some questions of literary influence this time around. The result was a fun and informative discussion about Romeo's creative process, particularly the way it is often tied to strong visuals, whether from his own imagination or from films. You'll notice that Romero draws a parallel between the creative process of writing and composing music as having a strong visual component attached to it. Stephen King, for one, has often commented on his own visual sense of his storytelling. Since Romero is a King fan, I thought the connection was interesting.
Here are a few excerpts from my discussion: (Please note that I've modified things a little to make them easier to read, especially since my own questions were sometimes long winded and our discussion roamed from music to horror movies to playing the guitar).
SoT: Tell me a little about Edgar Allan Poe and about how literature influences you.
Michael Romeo: I think that for some reason, I always like to have some kind of visual thing. I'm a big movie fan and a big fan of soundtracks like Star Wars. I always try to paint a picture. I also love the darker stuff--Stephen King and Poe. I'm a big horror movie fan. With that in mind, like with writing music, you have a picture that you try to paint, same thing with the band. Like with The Odyssey and Paradise Lost you have a definite direction, something that you want to say with the music. For me, it's not a conscious decision, but a little bit along the way, as years go by, it feels good to work like that.
SoT: With The Odyssey, how does the music relate to the story and how does the story change in a musical setting?
Michael Romeo: With writing the different sections of The Odyssey there are different parts of the story that need to be interpreted a certain way with the music. If it's a fight or a war scene or something like that, the music is a little more aggressive or with the journey sections, the music needs to be more open.
I'm a movie guy--things like Disney's Fantasia. I remember being young and seeing that and hearing "The Rite of Spring," work by Beethoven, and "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." Yeah, the visuals were after the music, but the combination was interesting. Trying to paint a picture, try to convey what's going on with the lyrics, the story, or whatever.
SoT: Tell me a little about the lyric writing process. You're pretty involved with the lyric writing.
MR: Me and Russ get together for a couple weeks and iron things out.
SoT: What kinds of horror movies do you like?
MR: Dude, everything. Old Hitchcock Stuff. And even some of the more extreme French stuff--Inside, or High Tension.
SoT: Ever see the Korean film, The Host?
MR: I'll have to check that out. Ever hear of Old Boy? Not really horror, but a revenge, suspense movie. I love stuff like that. When I was growing up, it was the classic shit--Frankenstein, of course Freddy and Jason, I even used to like the old Sinbad movies with the special effects by Ray Harryhausen. The music in those was always epic--Miklos Rozsa, I think. I also like Bernard Herrmann.
SoT: I wanted to ask if you like Herrmann. Have you been discovering some other composers, minimalist stuffy, like Philip Glass?
MR: I know it, it's good, but I like the more bombastic stuff like "The Rite of Spring" and "The Firebird" by Stravinsky. John Williams is also important. He's like my idol. Everything he's done is perfect, like Jaws. All the Star Wars movies, Indiana Jones, all those big movies without that music they wouldn't be the same. Everything he's done is fucking brilliant. Yeah, I'll listen to that stuff.
With this album [Iconoclast] we were trying to find something to write about and it's like, with Paradise Lost we did the heaven and hell, good and evil thing and with The Odyssey we did the mythology thing and now we're trying to figure out what the hell we can do next. You know, whatever, hanging out in my studio, cleaning up, noodling around, doing nothing, I had some music playing and I had all my soundtrack stuff mixed in with all my metal, you know Black Sabbath and everything and The Matrix soundtrack was on. That just kind of started it all. This mechanical thing, maybe we do the man vs. machine thing. The music was a little more abrasive. The keyboards were a little more mechanical a little more edgy.
SoT: You're really happy with the album?
MR: I love it. It was cool that we were able to do something a little different. It's not that much different than Paradise Lost, but to me it is because I know what went into it. With Paradise Lost, we thought about putting choirs here and there, cellos, the riffs were pretty heavy. In this one, it was like, we're not going to do that the same way. We're going to put a guitar in the background that's edgy and nasty, abrasive.
SoT: [I changed the subject to some of the lyrical themes of Iconoclast. I mentioned to him a connection that I saw between Dio's song "Killing the Dragon" and Symphony X's "The End of Innocence." I thought it was cool that they both used the dragon as a metaphor for technology as a big, threatening beast and asked Romero to comment].
MR: That's a cool analogy. With the lyric thing, we try to make it so it isn't too black and white, so there's some color to it. We don't want to preach or be political.
SoT: You want people to think about themes instead.
MR: The music and lyrics working together, doing the same thing.
SoT: Thank you.