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InterviewsScotland's Comedy of Errors keeps the prog alive with Fanfare and Fantasy

Posted on Tuesday, April 23 2013 @ 18:55:04 CDT by Pete Pardo
Progressive Rock Sea of Tranquility's Mark Johnson reviewed Comedy of Errors' debut release Disobey, back in 2011, and since that review has been eagerly anticipating their new album. Comedy of Errors is a Scottish band that have been writing music and gigging since the early days of the Neo – prog surge of the 1980s. Jim Johnston is the keyboard player of Comedy of Errors and he welcomed the opportunity to discuss the band's latest album Fanfare and Fantasy with Mark in this in-depth interview.

SoT–Jim Johnston, welcome to the Sea of Tranquility. We appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule promoting your new album 'Fanfare and Fantasy' and rehearsing for your tour to take time out to answer some questions for your fans.

Tell us how you decided on the name Comedy of Errors and about your early beginnings and successes as a band.

Jim Johnston - We formed in the eighties during the prog revival. I had written a lot of material, and got a band together from like-minded guys who lived in and around the Glasgow area in Scotland. The name was partly an attempt to pompously link ourselves with a genius like Shakespeare, but more because we shared an absurd sense of humor, (comedy), and in our early gigs, made a lot of mistakes, (errors). We gigged constantly but maybe suffered a little from being so far from London. We had some notable successes playing live in Europe though. In those days the only way to get the music out there was to get a record deal. We sent off demo tapes to record companies as did hundreds of other bands, but with no luck. Maybe that was why our first incarnation fizzled out. The writing never stopped though and the advent of affordable technology meant the music could be recorded and mixed, (for the most part), by ourselves. It was also possible to reach interested listeners via the internet without the need of a record company. Thus we were re-incarnated with original members, Mark Spalding (guitar) , Joe Cairney, (vocals), and myself, (keys). Bruce Levick then joined on drums and latterly John Fitzgerald on bass.

SoT– Before we jump into 'Fanfare and Fantasy', let's talk a little about your fantastic debut album 'Disobey'. The title track was my first introduction to your music. It is a masterpiece album opener. "Fate decides, only the mighty disobey". How do you fight fate each day?

Jim Johnston - I don't know if I, or anyone can. Maybe though, one day you turn around and look at yourself in the mirror, and suddenly realize you have become all you said you would never be. Experiences, (and not always good ones), can concentrate the mind wonderfully and maybe then you can start at least trying.

SoT– Who is 'Mr. Palmer', on the title track?

Jim Johnston - Actually, it was just a pretty common name that fitted- I think I may have got it from a Genesis song 'I Know What I Like, (In Your Wardrobe)'.

SoT–The 'Jekyll and Hyde' movie footage you intertwined with the band's live footage for the music video for the track 'Jekyll' was an excellent trip back to the past and the late night films we used to watch as kids on Saturday nights in the USA. However, I suspect there is more going on here than a movie blast from the past. What are the news events of the world that keep you up late?

Jim Johnston - Jekyll is about the duality of human nature, and how difficult it is to balance but so very necessary to the creative process. As for news events, strangely enough I'm more interested in the news from the American perspective and avidly watch a few US shows that are broadcast in the UK and send up the absurdity and craziness of the political process. I like how both the US and the UK are at least able to indulge in self-parody (albeit a minority).

SoT– 'Carousel' is a fantastic trip back to the past again. The melody stays with you forever, and brings back shared memories of a time gone by. Besides the music we grew up with, what were some of your favorite memories of youth?

Jim Johnston - Playing football (soccer) for hours and hours each day and the innocent joy of life before adolescence and adulthood rear their ugly heads! Seriously though, to be fair there is usually both joy and pain in all stages of life, some more than others. I personally had a very happy childhood.

SoT– Is 'American Rodeo', Comedy of Errors' 'Have a Cigar', or really a commentary on the culture?

Jim Johnston - The easy answer is both. It's very much tongue in cheek and intentionally clichéd to get the point across. One day they love and want you because they can sell you; the next , you are thrown away for something better. Also it's aimed at the self-important and self-obsessed who believe themselves to be greater than they are.

SoT–What real life event inspired 'Could Have Been Yesterday'?

Jim Johnston - It's a song about the coming of death and how ephemeral life is.

SoT– 'Joke' just tears at the heartstrings. That sad melody is wonderful and unforgettable. How can we bring empathy back into human consciousness?

Jim Johnston - I think some of these questions may be better asked of the Dalai Lama but I'll have a try ! I think we must reject the materialistic and instead pursue the spiritual and creative. `There is so much we strive for, which we don't really need while we fail to recognize what is important and what is superfluous. It can take a life changing event for this to be realized.

SoT– Tell us the story and inspiration for one of your greatest works, the epic, four part, over 25 minute, 'The Student Prince'.

Jim Johnston - All the songs should be interpreted personally by each listener to take from them what applies to their own life . My interpretation may be wrong for others. All are valid. My view though is that through parts 1 to 4 it is the story of a young man's search for the transcendental, with all his insecurities and arrogance, all in the metaphor of a night out. Afterwards he slumps back drunkenly in bed listening to music amid a sea of doubts and confusion. Suddenly years have passed and the search for the transcendental, the intangible, the unobtainable has been left aside. It was too difficult to 'disobey' and each generation will come around foolcircle. Finally a Gatsby-esque wistful and melancholic final look back.

SoT– Ok, thank you. I have been looking forward to asking you questions about that album for a while. Now let's talk about 'Fanfare and Fantasy'. What was your inspiration for the concept for this album?

Jim Johnston - At the risk of being cryptic, the concept for 'Fanfare and Fantasy' is too painful to me personally, to speak of in the context of an interview, for the reality is too hard to bear. I am happy to talk about things on a one to one basis. Suffice to say themes of loss, time, doubts and faith run through the album. However the listener can draw on their own personal experiences to relate to the concept. As for the style, I think 'Fanfare & Fantasy' moves into a more contemporary and symphonic prog style (although the 'genre police' may beg to differ! ).

SoT– The opening track, 'Fanfare for the Broken Hearted' is another excellent album starter. At the end of the track, there is an acoustic guitar playing which would have made an excellent ending. Did you have a tough decision between the electric lead solo or a softer acoustic guitar solo?

Jim Johnston - The finale of the opening track 'Fanfare For The Broken Hearted' ties together a lot of the themes and motifs revealed earlier. I didn't want to create any crescendo here but just to continue on with all the different themes coming in and out and overlapping to give a feeling of 'this is the way it has got to be' ..perhaps in other words 'fate' . I think this section of music, though not typically so, has a feeling of deep sadness about it.

SoT– 'Something She Said', is well written. Who is the subject of the story?

Jim Johnston - I think maybe the Student Prince character is making a re-appearance in this one, (though subconsciously), in some of the reflections made in the lyrics. The main reference though is the same as I mentioned regarding the general concept for the album.

SoT– 'In a Lifetime' has a great line, "See how our problems sometimes set us free". I can think of some examples in my life, do you want to share one from your experience?

Jim Johnston - No one thinks this is the case at the time of course. Perhaps though, on reflection, through painful experience, the truth is revealed.

SoT– 'Going for a Song' seems like it was perfectly inspired by daily life. Tell us about the song writing process and how it evolves within Comedy of Errors.

Jim Johnston - I try to develop a group of ideas having a vague impression of what I ultimately am aiming for. I try out variations and while doing that often chance on something that develops out of the blue. After writing the song I usually, make a demo with all the instruments or simulations of them. I then discuss what is required with the others band members and we try various takes with the real instruments starting usually with drums. Then the other instruments and vocals last of all. Throughout this process we can tweak things -selecting and rejecting and settling on what works and what doesn't.

SoT– 'Merry Dance' must have been a lot of fun to write and perform.

Jim Johnston - I hate repeating myself by writing the same song twice and so like to put an individual stamp on each song by giving it its own character. I am fond though of flashes of renaissance harmony and counterpoint and this song has a flavor of this in some parts. I just can't tell what this one may sound like to listeners--possibly Jethro Tull meets Electronica meets Red Hot Chilli Peppers! I'm not sure myself so don't quote me! Lyrically there's a bit of bitterness in the crisis of faith.

SoT– What is the 'The Cause' for Jim Johnston or Comedy of Errors?

Jim Johnston - From both angles I would say simply to express ourselves in writing, recording and performing music which inspires a deep emotional response, and in which we as a band have total faith. Ideally we would like to reach as wide an audience as possible and to gig extensively as we do enjoy playing live. Whether people like us or not, we'd do it anyway.

SoT– Tell us of the origin of the title and theme of 'Times Motet and Galliard'.

Jim Johnston - The motet is based on one from Thomas Tallis, a composer of polyphonic choral music in Elizabethan times. The galliard is a written pastiche in the style of that period. I love the modal harmonies and unusual chord progressions from this period. I think it's interesting to write in this style and give it the COE treatment. The lyrics deal with the passing time and the passing of life.

SoT–That piano at the beginning of 'Remembrance', brought back memories of Procol Harum's 'Salty Dog'. Was it intentional? Are you fans of the band and was this a tip of the hat?

Jim Johnston - I am ashamed to say I have never heard this track or indeed anything from Procul Harum other than the wonderful 'Whiter Shade of Pale'. I am now curious to check it out.

SoT– 'The Answer', on the other hand, is full of melotron sounds and early Genesis memories. How much of an inspiration was that early Genesis era, and what are some of your favorites of theirs?

Jim Johnston - I do like that early 70's progressive sound. However there are many prog bands nowadays who win plaudits by simply recreating this sound though unfortunately don't have the originality of material to back it up and make it their own. There are not many bands in prog who can say Genesis was not an influence. The earlier material up to the Lamb Lies Down is probably my favorite era of Genesis. Though the period from there to Duke has also some great songs.

SoT– Do you have plans to play the entire 'Fanfare & Fantasy' album on tour this year or next? If so, where do you plan to tour?

Jim Johnston - Our set will contain a mix of songs from both albums maybe including one which appears only on the vinyl edition which will be released 20th April. As I write we are playing festivals in England in May and November. Also gigs in the UK over the summer and in September , three in Holland and two in Germany with the possibility of a major support that same month. Everyone in the band gets on so well together and traveling to gigs and playing live for us is one of life's great pleasures so we are always looking to extend our horizon's into new territory. We'd tour the US in a heartbeat if you'll have us!

SoT–What is next for Comedy of Errors? Do you have some early ideas about a subject or concept that you would like to write and sing about?

Jim Johnston - Yes, in fact I am gathering together material which will form the basis of a very long track which will take up most of the next album. It is on a rather epic scale so it'll take a fair bit of working out. When I can get time between gigs I'll start to put meat on the bones, but I already have a feel for what it should be. I think it will be as different from 'Fanfare &Fantasy' as that one was from 'Disobey'. That said some of the concepts touched on in 'F&F' will carry into the next one.

SoT– What are some of the top songs or bands you are listening to now?

Jim Johnston - I listen almost exclusively to classical music. I have no formal training but have been deeply into this sort of music since my early teens. Mahler, Vaughan Williams and Renaissance Polyphony are very much in my mind at present. Beethoven will always be my hero though. As for modern bands, I enjoyed recently listening to some tracks of Sigur Ros.

SoT– What figure from history or the present most inspires you?

Jim Johnston - Shakespeare and Beethoven are the big ones. Lyrically I often make the odd literary reference from Shakespeare to F. Scott Fitzgerald ! I am an avid reader. Musically I am now more interested in early and contemporary classical.

SoT– Is there anything else that you would like to discuss that I haven't asked?

Jim Johnston - I think, Mark you have covered everything and more! Now may I get up from the analysts couch and stretch my legs a little ? I think I may be cured!

SoT- Thank you again for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer some questions for us. We at the Sea of Tranquility wish you and Comedy of Errors much success with the launch of 'Fanfare and Fantasy' and all that you do in the future.

Jim Johnston - Thank you, Mark for giving me the opportunity to answer them and Comedy Of Errors would like to thank you for your kind words about 'Fanfare & Fantasy' and wish all at Sea of Tranquility and your readers all the best .

Mark Johnson

Photos courtesy of: Billy Hepburn at MusicPro (UK).

(Click here to read our reviews of Fanfare and Fantasy)



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