For the past two decades, Californian quintet Spock's Beard has been one of the most popular bands in progressive rock. With almost unanimously revered albums like V, Snow, and X, they've arguably released some of the greatest records the genre has ever had. Even with several line-up changes in their career, the Beard boys have never lost momentum. SOT's Jordan Blum recently spoke with bassist Dave Meros about the phenomenal legacy his band has produced.
SoT: Any word on a new album?
Dave: We're actually starting to work on one now. By the time this goes to print, we will have gone into rehearsal for a couple days and then the studio for a few days to get basic tracks going for our first batch of new songs. If all goes as planned (does it ever?), we'll have a new CD out by the fall.
SoT: When you began as a musician, you focused on several other instruments, such as piano and various horns. What made you decide to focus on the bass? Do you still play any of those instruments in your career (or maybe just as a hobby during your downtime)?
Dave: I still play keyboards quite a lot; that's what I write on and strangely enough, that's the instrument that I'm the most comfortable on (probably because that's what I started on as a kid.) I started on bass pretty much by accident at 20 years old.
As a little aside here, there is a bass player in South Africa who I met in those ancient days of MySpace who compiled quite an extensive list of bass players and their reasons for starting bass, and it surprised me to read that many of us started for the same reason. It was commonly kind of accidental or we were told that's what we had to play if we wanted to be in a band. But almost universal was the feeling that as soon as we picked up the bass, it was like home, and we wondered why we ever played any other instrument.
In my case, a drummer friend of mine in college was starting a band and they couldn't find a bass player. Since I played a bunch of other instruments, they just assumed I could easily pick up the bass, and since I really wanted to be in a rock band, I jumped at the chance.
The guitar player had a super nice '63 Jazz Bass that he let me use, along with a 100w Plush tube amp. Pretty cool first rig.
I had taken exactly two guitar lessons in high school and absolutely hated it, but it gave me familiarity with how strings were arranged and how a fret board was laid out. Bass is actually pretty easy to get to basic gig level on, so I went from zero to gigging in about three weeks.
I didn't realize it until right then, but I was secretly a bass player in my mind my whole life. My brain was packed with bass parts—that's what I used to always focus on—so it was pretty natural to start playing bass.
I gave up on all the horns a long time ago. I tried to get back into French horn playing when Spock's Beard started using French Horns a lot in recording, but mercifully, I stopped ha ha! I did manage to get a few parts down on some of our earlier CDs, but it took a lot of takes to get anything down that sounded good. It's a tough instrument and I didn't have the patience to work hard on it for a year or two to get into the shape I'd need to get to record at a level that I'd consider acceptable.
SoT: For about fifteen years, from 1990 – 2005, you toured with and managed Eric Burdon and the Animals? How did you come to work with him and why did you decide to stop (was Spock's a reason)?
Dave: I started working for Eric via a producer that I had been hired by for a couple projects a year or two earlier. He had worked with Eric on and off since the 70s and Eric had called him and asked him to put a band together, so he picked musicians that he knew would be compatible with Eric's music and personality. [The musicians] also [had to] have a good, energetic vibe for live shows (I was younger and much more exuberant then).
The band was originally put together to do a few warm up shows in LA and then play the Montreaux Jazz Festival 1990. We never played Montreaux, but it turned into a regularly gigging band and it was a steady gig for me for just a couple of months short of sixteen years. I saw a lot of the world with that band.
As to why I left, [well] actually, I got fired. Eric decided he wanted some fresh meat and cleaned house. He fired the whole band, his management, and one of our booking agencies that had been doing great work for him. Things were going absolutely great at the time—no problems of any kind, sold out shows, and the money was great—so it was really unexpected. It was a really good band, too, and a great bunch of guys (who I still play with from time to time). He just felt like seeing new faces on stage with him, I guess.
SoT: How'd you come to join Spock's and why?
Dave: I met Al and Neal in the mid 80s through some mutual friends that I was playing with (John Boegehold was one of those guys, [too]). We did a few small things together off and on through the next few years (nothing big, just little demo recording sessions here and there).
When Spock's Beard was put together in 1993 (I think), they originally had another guy playing bass and did a couple of gigs under a different name (I think it was "One" or something like that). For one reason or another, it kind of temporarily faded out.
After a while they wanted to get back together and record a "real band" version of Neal's demos and also do more gigs, and I guess they weren't totally sold on the bass player that they had used before, so Al called and asked me to check it out. That was sometime in 1994.
I had never really been into prog rock much before that, and to be honest, I thought the stuff was a little melodramatic, but I recognized the great writing and [I] knew it would be a great challenge for me and revitalize my musical energy, which had become a little dulled.
I rehearsed and rehearsed the songs and showed up at the first rehearsal ready to nail it. But little did I know that the cassette tape that I learned everything from was off-speed and I learned everything a halftone high. Rather than just tuning my bass down a half step like I should have, I tried to transpose in my head as I went along, which was marginally successful at best.
I felt like a real idiot when I left that rehearsal, but it was the kick-in-the-butt that I needed and it motivated me to really get it perfect for the next time.
I went out and bought a Rickenbacker and started working on playing better with a pick. [I was] also working on that tone that I always loved but could never use in any band I had been in before.
SoT: Can you discuss how the Kings of Classic Rock and Rolling Heads, two of your sort of side bands, formed and what styles you guys play? Do you do it just for fun or will the groups release any studio work? Will either ever take over Spock's spot as your primary outlet.
The Kings of Classic Rock was an attempt by me to keep my buddies and bandmates from the Eric Burdon band together. Since we were all dismissed at the same time, I thought we could form sort of an all-star cover band since we had all played with various famous artists over the years.
I had some friends in similar bands and they were doing really quite well on the corporate event circuit and I wanted to do the same. We had just gotten on track with that when the economy went south, so unfortunately that band didn't really live up to expectations, but it was and still is a really cool Classic Rock band with great players. We still do a handful of gigs each year, and it's always fun to go down to LA and hang with my buds and play some great old tunes.
I moved to northern California at the end of 2000, to the Sacramento area. Ted Leonard (singer for Enchant and new singer for Spock's Beard) wound up in the same general area and, as both of our careers sort of imploded at about the same time, we thought it would be cool to form a cover band to make some money and keep our hand in playing live.
It's a really cool little band, with two great male singers, a great female singer, and a really expansive song list, spanning from classic rock to Lady Gaga.
Both bands are strictly cover bands though (no plans to dive into any original material).
SoT: Have you ever considered, or has anyone ever suggested, the parallels between mid-career Spock's Beard and mid-career Genesis? I mean, in both cases, the band released its fifth album (and arguably greatest album of individualized songs), then released its religiously themed concept album, and then saw the replacement of the lead vocalist by the drummer. Don't get me wrong; post-Neal Morse Spock's has faired much better than post-Gabriel Genesis, but I find it fascinating how the two histories connect.
Dave: Oh yeah, we've heard that a lot. It is quite the coincidental series of events though, I must admit. We didn't plan it that way or even think about that at the time, but when the first person mentioned it to us, it was pretty wild to hear. I would have liked a couple mega pop hits like the Phil Collins Genesis had. It would be good to be set for life like that even if they did get a little cheesy.
SoT: What's your favorite Spock's album overall? How bout with Neal and without?
I have a hard time picking one from each era because I change my mind occasionally, but from the Neal era, from my own perspective, which includes my personal experiences during that time in addition to the music itself, I always seem to go back to Beware Of Darkness. That is a really underrated CD, and it was a really exciting and fulfilling time for me personally.
As far as the post-Neal era, that's also difficult. As an entire CD, it would be X for sure, but there are parts of Octane and SB9 that I think surpass anything on X.
SoT: How much pressure did you guys feel after he left to satisfy expectations, continue with a similar sound, and develop your own sound (as this was the start of a brand new chapter of the Spock's story)?
Dave: We didn't really think about it much. For all of us, Spock's Beard had been the coolest, most inspiring and most fun band we had ever been in and we all loved playing together and hanging out together, so we just couldn't let it die without some kind of a fight.
The general attitude was that we would give it our best shot, and even if we failed, it would be fun to still play together for as long as it lasted.
SoT: Same question for now (considering the recent line-up changes).
Dave: This time we are putting a bit more thought into it, I guess. Our fan base was very forgiving when we released Feel Euphoria after Neal left. I think they were all very surprised that we continued on at all (and [they] maybe had low expectations), but they were very supportive during that time.
After Feel Euphoria, the honeymoon was over and we got beat up pretty hard on Octane and SB9 over "musical inconsistency"—blending in too many styles—even though I think those two CDs are much better than Feel Euphoria.
We never really got together and made a plan for X, but we all subconsciously realized what Spock's Beard was to our fan base and focused the music more, and we got great reviews for doing that. I guess what I'm getting at is that I don't think we'll release a CD like Feel Euphoria, where we're casually experimenting around to see where we land.
We need to find our sound with this new lineup before our next release, so in that respect, I guess there is a bit more self-imposed pressure.
SoT: How did Nick announce he was leaving? Did you have any idea? Was there any discussion about it? How do you think it'll affect Spock's sound and future?
Dave: The writing was on the wall for a long time, actually. Nick thought that he could somehow fit Spock's Beard in with his Cirque schedule, but it turned out to be impossible. We all realized that within a few months of his getting that gig actually, but we waited for a couple years to let fate perhaps change the course. You know, the show might have run its course after one contract cycle and ended, Nick might have quit or gotten a transfer to the permanent LA show, or X might have somehow taken off like wildfire and made us all fabulously rich and famous. Of course, none of that happened.
So, after he re-signed for another stint with Cirque, we all knew that we either needed to make a change or the band would just sort of fade away.
Since we are spread around geographically these days, we couldn't meet in person, but we got on a conference call and talked it through and pretty much agreed that we didn't have any other acceptable option. It was a sad conversation for sure, but very amicable and we continue to be good friends and [be] supportive of each other.
SoT: Looking back on Snow, which I think is the band's best work by far, how do you feel about it? How was it conceived (in terms of story, music, and conceptual continuity in terms of reprising melodies)?
Dave: It's actually my least favorite SB CD, [so] I guess that shows you how much I know ha ha! It was really fun to record; I just wasn't into it that much after it was finished. I think [that] since it was released, I've only listened to it once or twice in all these years.
When I hear bits and pieces of it, I really like it, but listening to it start to finish, I don't know. To me, it's a bit campy.
Funny thing about that CD—everybody is now saying it was our masterpiece, but when it came out, the general consensus was that it was a bit derivative, bloated, and not as good as our previous CD, V. We got some good reviews, but also some very negative ones. I've actually seen new reviews of Snow by reviewers who hated it back then but love it now; they actually wrote retractions to their original review. Interesting how the prog world changed around us.
That was back in the days where Neal was writing 100% of everything. He'd record completely finished demos by himself and send us finished pieces to learn, so the whole concept (both story and music) were conceived and developed by Neal.
SoT: Which artists inspired you growing up? Who do you listen to now?
Dave: I grew up in the '60s and '70s, which was a very rich period in popular music. It was also very integrated and people [were] far more open-minded than they [are] today. I could turn on the radio and hear an Aretha Franklin song followed by Deep Purple followed by The Monkees followed by some really cool fusion-jazzy thing or a super cheesy pop tune, all on the same radio station.
I got totally into many, many different kinds of bands and players, so my influences were really diverse (almost too many to list).
Currently, I'm not listening to any music at all. I've been listening to less and less over the past year or so and I finally crossed the final barrier a few weeks ago of not even bringing my mp3 player to the gym any more. There is lots and lots of great stuff out there, [but] I'm just sort of in a phase, I guess.
I know that it's probably just me, but everything I hear seems too extreme in one direction or another. [It's] either really derivative and simplistic, appealing to the lowest common denominator, too non-musical and noisy, or too "ambitious" and busy.
Prog rock artists are guilty of the overly ambitious stuff more than anybody. Everything is getting bigger and bigger, faster and faster, more and more lyrically heavy, and it's all becoming a caricature of itself.
I'm generalizing of course, and there are definitely exceptions to what I'm saying, but in general, I'm hearing less and less great songwriting. In its place, it's getting to be more about how fast players can wiggle their fingers or how much bombast or complexity they can create.
So I'm listening to a lot of NPR these days (laughs).
SoT: In terms of touring, how do you guys decide which songs to play? Do you favor any time period of Spock's history more than another?
Dave: We tend to tour only after a new CD release, so our tours are usually based about half on the new CD and the other half being a cross section of things from the past. It's getting harder and harder to choose a set list as our repertoire gets larger and larger, but one big factor we take into consideration is [repetition]; we try not to do material that we have done a lot on previous tours, but we still try to keep in mind the ones that people always want to hear, like "The Light" or "June."
SoT: How did Jimmy and Ted come to join the band? I know that they've been playing with you live for awhile now.
Dave: When Nick took over as front man after Neal left, we needed a drummer for playing live shows, and Nick knew Jimmy, who is absolutely perfect for the gig. [He's has a] compatible drumming style and [he's] a great high-harmony singer.
We have known Ted for many years, as Enchant toured with us a couple of times (one time when Neal was in the band and once after he had left). We always loved his voice and he fit in with us personality-wise as well, so when Nick left, it was an easy choice to give him a call.
SoT: What's the songwriting process like? Is the music written first or the words and melodies? Is there a primary songwriter now?
Dave: Sometimes Al writes lyrics first [and] then fits them into a song that he'll write later, but usually, with the rest of us, it's the music first [and] then lyrics. Everybody writes to one degree or another, and it varies from CD to CD, but if there was a primary songwriter, I'd have to say it was John Boegehold; [he's ] co-written everything of mine and also lots of stuff with the other guys.
SoT: You seem to have very specific tastes in terms of your instruments. How important is the model of the bass to the overall sound? Do you have specific basses that you use for specific purposes (style, tone, etc)?
Dave: I use a Rickenbacker because when I think of progressive rock bass, I think of Chris Squire and Geddy Lee in their classic days, and that's what they used. The Ric is an iconic bass in prog rock, and so when SB started, I just sort of had to join the club and get one.
I can get a very similar sound on all my basses, though, so it's really not necessary for me to play a Ric, but it does look very cool, and it is the bass that really defined that sound.
The way I have my Ric modified (with a set of Fender Jazz pickups as well as the Ric pickups), I can use that bass in a lot of different situations, but I do use a five string from time to time when a particular song calls for lots of notes below a D (if D is the lowest note in a song I can drop the E string on my Ric to a D), and I use fretless sometimes as well because fretless has a very expressive quality that really fits certain songs.
SoT: Anything you'd like to say to your fans?
Dave: I'd just like to thank everybody for their continued support over the years. All of us in the band really, really, really appreciate it. We have a live CD / DVD set that just came out in mid February [The X Tour Live], and look for a new studio CD and probably a tour sometime in 2012!
SoT: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me, Dave. It was a pleasure.
Dave: Thanks, Jordan.