Back in 2008 Multi-National, Canadian based act Half Past Four made a huge impact on the prog and art rock scenes with their excellent full debut release Rabbit In The Vestibule. Some five years down the line and HPF are back, this time with Good Times, an album which expertly stretches the progressive boundaries this band are so keen to explore. Sea of Tranquility's Steven Reid caught up with guitarist Constantin Necrasov, singer Kyree Vibrant, keyboard player Igor Kurtzman and bassist Dmitry "Les" Lesov (drummer Marcello completes the line-up) to try and discover what makes this Half Past Four tick...
Thanks also to the band's PR manager Yana Tsipckin for making this interview possible.
The history of Half Past Four goes right back in to the nineties, with many different line-ups of the band coming and going over that time. Can you please tell us how the band first came together?
Constantin: In 1999 myself and Dmitry met while playing with other bands and decided to start a band together and went through several different line-ups of players. Then Igor joined and they began to form a sound and began exploring the progressive music genre. In 2005, Kyree joined after answering an ad for an English singer. Several of the songs were translated from Russian for Kyree to sing, and we began writing together.
Between the band forming and your first music being officially released, there was a seven year gap. Was that time spent playing as many gigs as possible, writing a lot of material, or...?
Constantin: The band as it is now really started when Kyree joined, so in 2005 we began writing and arranging the music for the release. So it took about three years to create the album the way we wanted it. During that time we were playing gigs and polishing the music as much as possible.
However in 2006 Before Half Past Four had even recorded an album, you were hired to record the soundtrack for the film The Mad starring Billy Zane. How did that come about?
Constantin: Kyree's husband, Johnny Kalangis was hired to direct the movie and he told the producers at Peace Arch films about us. We recorded a few demos and to our delight, they hired us on the spot – but we only had a month to write and record it all!
So the writing and recording of the music for that soundtrack was done under very tight time constraints? How tough was it to have your first recording experience as a band under such circumstances?
Kyree: It was tough – and a challenge to be sure – but it was a lot of fun as well. Writing 80s genre music was a great laugh. Especially the epic song that Billy Zane's character in the movie describes as the song "that influenced him to become a drummer". It was called "Live For Your Dreams" and was meant to mimic epic 80s hits such as "Voices Carry" by 'Til Tuesday and the back and forth banter of Human League. Iggy wrote that in twenty minutes and Kyree wrote lyrics to it driving to work the next morning because they needed it that afternoon! We laughed a lot as we experimented on the fly.
Did the experience of such an intense writing and recording period bring the band closer together personally and creatively?
Kyree: Absolutely. The realization that we could write and record creative and varied pieces in a short time frame solidified our band. Honestly, it all flowed together so well that it was the writing of this soundtrack that made us realize what we had together. As it tends to do with us, the ideas came out and went just great with the film maker's vision. Everyone was very happy and it gave us a lot of confidence.
Then 2008 saw the band's first album proper, the wonderfully titled Rabbit In The Vestibule, come about. That album has a wonderful concept behind it of how to bring together disparate musical ideas on to one album. Can you explain the idea behind that please?
Constantin: We assembled the album from the songs that were written in different times and on quite variant subjects. It almost felt like an art gallery arrangement, with rooms dedicated to different art history periods, much like museums do. So we figured it would be nice to describe the album as a vestibule, the non-room, a place from which the doors take you places. The rabbit was more of a reflection on the ever changing and ever shifting vantage point that a typical museum visitor/popular culture consumer usually has. We listen to some song, call it 'Big Hit A' today which is on top of every chart and blasting from every car, but two weeks later we don't even remember the first line of said song. Then the 'Big Hit B' comes along and shares the same fate. The ever-changing attention span of a rabbit therefore is placed in the negative space of the vestibule and the timid animal is presented with an almost impossible task of exploring the new music for itself. That's how we felt about progressive rock in 2008.
Another five years have passed between Rabbit... and your newly released album Good Things. How do you feel that your music has evolved in that time?
Igor: About half the music on Rabbit was already written or partially written before Kyree joined the band. While writing the music that would end up on the other half of the album the rest of the band was also still making a kind of transition to the lineup and the realization that, really, now the sky is the limit to what we can create musically. By the time we started writing the first few songs for Good Things - four of the songs were first recorded as a demo in 2009 - we were tight as a band, tight as collective composers and writers, and just knowing each other much better as to be more comfortable and confident with the various ideas that we bring. With Rabbit we wanted to experiment with sound as much as possible and try everything. In Good Things we already knew the kind of sound we wanted and focused more on the music itself.
Again, you have a concept behind the album, although the album itself isn't necessarily conceptual from song to song. Do you think it is important to have an idea of how an album should feel and sound as a whole, before you even begin to piece it together?
Kyree: For us, writing each song as a separate entity with its own story and feeling is the most important thing. Our album "concepts" aren't necessarily born from the idea that all of our songs are connected or part of one idea – in the first album we connected them together with a vestibule. Good Things concept was similar. After the songs were written, we tried to figure out how to present them as a whole movement. They do represent an era of time within the context of the band, so we just had to choose the right umbrella.
The album art of a loaf of bread "cut" at half past four and the back cover picture of the band watching the "birth" of the bread also ties in with the album concept. What is the thinking behind this and how do you hope the listener will interact with this album?
Kyree: We want to invite the listener in to a comfortable environment to relax and enjoy the music the way we do when we are in our living room alone with headphones on - the proper way to hear our album in our opinion - or hanging around in a kitchen waiting for bread to bake with friends or family – a warm feeling of inclusion – because so much music from this genre comes off as exclusive and hard to relate to if you are not right into prog. It was important for us to make an immediate impression with something simple and universal. Breaking bread with friends.
Lyrically Good Things can come across as deep, dark and complex. I'm very intrigued by the meaning and delivery - especially vocally - behind some of the songs, with "Wolf", "Rise" and "It Strikes You" being especially intriguing. Can you give us some background on these songs?
Kyree: "Rise" is a juxtaposition in meaning between the events of bread being baked and a baby being created. I liked the idea of the song initially being about the simple act of bread being made and baked but then I realized while the lyrics were coming out, that the lyrics also implied the other meaning as well, so I had some fun with it. The dramatic motion of the music illustrated the grandeur of the act of creation as well. Then it all sort of ended up relating to the concept of the album.
"It Strikes You" was a musing about the idea of going outside on a cool dark night and suddenly hearing someone singing to themselves with a window open and the immediate feeling of slight embarrassment – like maybe you shouldn't be there hearing this candid sound. Hence the idea of a "peeping tom – shouldn't be there. A bit embarrassed, no reason to be" It strikes you oddly doesn't it?
Les: "Wolf" is a bit of a stranger on the album… The song itself was written in Russian more than a decade ago. The story of bibliophilic carnivorous wolf with passion for high literature and his provider wife with a big heart that turned out was just writing itself... It was written for a jazzy style classic guitar, but a twist of an odd measure added in the middle of the verse. Myself and Constantin performed the song live several times and shelved it, almost forgetting about it. When Good Things composing was done, we realized that there is just not enough Zappaish humour in it, which fans enjoyed quite a bit on the first album. We unearthed the song from our memory storage and presented Kyree with the conundrum of translating the very Russian fairy-tale-like text into English, the task she excelled at (with help of Russians in the band), and added an extra verse that tied the loose lyrical ends and made it wholesome musically. We added very Beatlesian "She's So Heavy"-style bridge and the song was complete. Kyree tried several delivery methods, but the "small voice" narration style vocals won, falling nicely into stop-times and upholding the fairy-tale feel of the song… Then Constantin surprised everyone with his growling "come together, children" in post production.
Is the manner in which you manage to infuse a little lyrical and musical humour into your songs also a way of adding a little levity to "heavy" musical matters?
Kyree: We are serious about the music, but we are fun, joyful people who like to enjoy ourselves and it is mandatory that the people who listen to us have a bit of humour about them so they can fully appreciate the bits of fun we mix into our music. Our intention is not to override the music with too much humour, but we hope that our personalities come out and it makes the listener feel more welcome and that he might feel like he has something in common with us or the music...
In this world of quick-fixes and instant gratification, do you ever worry that the shear breadth of musical styles and influences that you employ not just from song to song, but also within your songs, might prove too much for even some ardent prog fans to grab on to initially?
Constantin: Instant gratification can be achieved in many ways; one would be to go to our concert and hearing the music live. But this is a psychological term that refers to something that reinforces a particular behaviour. If the behaviour reinforced is counter to the curious exploration of new music, then I think offering something complex is definitely a bonus. People may open up more eagerly when they hear something familiar.
If I remember correctly it was Paul McCartney that said that if a band is to be properly politically correct then all they will ever play would be national anthems. Same logic is here, albeit a different subject matter. We compose and play our music not because of a particular audience, but because we don't see ourselves not composing and not playing our music.
So how do you go about creating and constructing your music? Are you a band who spend hours jamming out ideas and song sections, before piecing together the parts you think work best. Or are finished songs brought to the rest of the band to play their parts on?
Les: Over the years the band worked out a dynamic of composing that seem to work very naturally at this point. Each of us has their own compositional strengths, and we utilize them very efficiently… At times my brain is boiling with new riffs and ideas that emerge quickly and soon forgotten if not addressed. I bring them in for discussion, they get filtered and the best ones are kept… For example, "It Strikes You" started with me pretending - badly - that I'm Les Claypool … Iggy has a bit of a different approach and usually brings more solid song ideas, sometimes more conceptual, making Kyree's lyrical job a bit easier, such as "Rise"… Constantin's ingenuity in arrangements makes up the whole thing, he has a very keen and respected sense of right and wrong in that department. And his guitar solo work is incredible as usual… No good thing could have come out of it without his talent. Marcello came in when almost all the album has been composed, for exception of "Fate", where he immediately added few details that made the song so much better. I can't wait to compose more with him. Kyree is our lyrical power, putting our feelings into words… Usually we start working on a specific tune, the stew of ideas, and while it cooks in our collective mind, Kyree sits quietly, observing and absorbing… By the time the song solidifies musically, she suddenly steps up to the microphone and delivers the lyrics that match the musical palette beautifully.
Vocally, however it feels like the words to each song would only ever work on the individual song they are paired with. How hard is it combining such angular, borderless music to such enigmatic words and vocals?
Kyree - It is probably true – I never thought of it that way. I guess most of my lyrics come from properly written poems and then I just whittle and craft the words into lyrics that fit as I want. Sometimes its very apparent how it should go, and other times, I really have to spend a lot of time writing and scrapping and re-writing what I am trying to say so that the lyrics dance over the music just right.
The band's line-up features a variety of cultural backgrounds, how much does the clash and integration of experiences, musically or otherwise, influence how Half Past Four sound? For example "Spin The Girl" illustrates a very Eastern European flavour, whereas other tracks display a far more obvious "Western" outlook.
Iggy: We took a lot from the various places where we were raised, including many of our musical influences. For instance, "Spin The Girl" was primarily influenced by Jewish Klezmer which, while I never paid much attention to in the past, I was exposed to, having lived in Israel for a number of years as a child. And some of it somehow stuck at the back of my mind enough to give me an idea for that intro melody, and subsequently the rest of the song with HPF. All our experiences definitely contribute to our music and we enjoy finding the various influences in the songs after completing the writing process, most of which are unintentional.
Which leads me to ask what the main musical influences the different members of the band bring together to make up what we hear through Half Past Four?
Igor: I was exposed to lots of different kinds of music throughout my life, starting from pop - whatever was on the radio and my dad's folk guitar playing as a child, then classical while taking piano lessons, then jazz - while being tired of classical piano lessons - and then pretty much everything that has any musical substance.
Constantin: I started out by picking Ritchie Blackmore guitar licks when I was 14 and soon found myself, to my own surprise, as a lead singer of a Pantera cover band. Then back to Floyd and Uriah Heep, then on to Kraut and synth-pop, then… well you get the idea. Currently I eagerly listen to Tull and Crimson, but always look out for new interesting music. I prefer to see and hear it live too.
Les: As soon as I got out of Soviet Motherland, where I was listening to crumbling and disintegrating reel-to-reel illegal, rock-n-roll was not very legal, bootlegs of Beatles and Pink Floyd collected by my dad in the days of his youth, I dove into melomania galore, listening to everything I can get a hold of. Peter Gabriel just released Us, that is still my favorite album of his solo career. That was still before MP3 times, so thanks to Canadian public libraries, well stoked on great music, I got acquainted first with Jethro Tull, then Yes and then King Crimson's "21 Century Schizoid Man"… By this time I was head over heels in love with prog. Seen KC live in '94 – where I first noticed that strange instrument Tony Levin was playing… Same Chapman's stick that is featured on three songs in our new album!
After the release of Rabbit... you spent considerable time on the road promoting the album, is there a similar plan of attack in place for Good Things? Do you have any shows already booked?
Les: We are working on finding a good booking agent in Quebec because we'd like to spend a good deal of time there promoting and playing our album. We are also working on some festivals in the States that would be fun to play and probably some gigs along the "prog belt" (NY to NC) during the summer. Most of our efforts have been focused the last two months on the CD release party because we were filming it. We will have it online for people to watch soon hopefully.
Thanks for taking the time to answer all my questions, is there anything else you'd like to add?
Les: Just want to say thank you very much to Sea of Tranquility for the lovely review. And thank you to all the fans - and future ones who support our music. We appreciate everything and we hope you enjoy our music!
Please feel free to talk about our album if you like it - word of mouth rocks!
(Click here to read our reviews of Good Times)