Unified Past is back with their latest album Spots and it is not only one of the best albums of the year, but it is "Hot" progressive rock. Not only was Mark Johnson lucky enough to be invited back to review Spots after reviewing their last album Observations, he took it personally and decided this band needed to have their own interview as well. When you're as passionate about music as Stephen Speelman, Victor Tassone, and Dave Mickelson are about progressive rock music, it wasn't difficult to get them to weigh in on some deep subjects about Spots, their past and their future.
Welcome to the Sea of Tranquility gentlemen. We appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedules promoting your new album Spots and rehearsing for your tour to take some time out to answer some questions for your fans.
Mark – Well, first off, let's get something corrected from the last time we reviewed Observations, and that is for you to tell us about how you guys got together and what inspired you to make your sixth album?
Steve - Victor and I got back together in 2009 after a lengthy break. We both knew it was time to get Unified Past back together but the music scene had changed quite drastically since 1999. We released Tense and got ourselves reacquainted with the industry. When we recorded Observations in 2011 the band had become just Victor and I, so we decided to go in an experimental direction for us. We used the studio as another instrument and wanted to write songs from the singer/songwriter perspective. Having satisfied our curiosity, we knew it was time to get back to being ourselves. I met Dave Mickelson when I was asked to fill in on guitar one night for Joey Belladonna's Chief Big Way. Dave is their bass player. We hit it off well and I asked him if he would be interested in playing bass for us on a few songs for our next CD. He said yes. Once we started working on the tunes together it became clear pretty quickly that he was what we were looking for. Dave and Victor both have heavy rock backgrounds and they work so well together. They give our progressive direction a hard rock edge. After a few songs, Spots took on a clear direction - no more experiments, just time to rock.
Mark – Tell us about your first four albums. What were some of the highlights and best tracks off those albums? (Any 'Spinal Tap' moments are always appreciated).
Steve - Our first two CD's were originally released as "Labyrinth". Our first CD, Breaking up the Atmosphere, has a tune that was always a crowd favorite, Sudden Death. We used to play a Bugs Bunny video to introduce the song. It was the one where Bugs and the gremlin were in a plane that was spiraling to the ground. Right as they are about to crash, the song would start. The crowd loved it! Our second CD, Power of Existence, had many high moments but a personal favorite was the title track. Our third CD, Endangered Species, we pulled from the shelves very early after its release as we learned of Labyrinth from Italy. So we changed our name to Unified Past and came out with, From the Splintered Present Surfaces. The opening track, Head, was always a great show opener that got the crowd going.
Mark – Where are they available for fans to purchase?
Steve - We decided to re-release our early CD's as Unified Past, so that our non U.S. fans could purchase the mp3 files. These three CD's are only available currently as mp3 downloads and can be purchased at Amazon, Rhapsody, E-Music, I-Tunes, etc. Tense can be purchased on CD or MP3 at MRR, Amazon and our web site.
Mark - Before we jump into a discussion of the last two albums, I noticed on your band's Facebook page the discussion question, "Is your latest album, Spots, progressive rock"? For the record "what say you good people"?
Steve - It's progressive rock to us. We take all that we love from every decade of prog and put it all together with our own style. We consider it progressive rock.
Victor - It is progressive rock, it's not progressive metal but yet it is a bit hard. I have heard some fans call it New Prog.
Mark – Would you consider Spots to be a concept album?
Steve - On the surface it appears to be, but it's not. There's a loose concept as far as the relationship of the song titles to the CD title, but that's as far as it goes.
Mark – "Blank" is the album igniter off Spots. Describe the importance of kicking an album off on the right track and setting the stage for what will follow.
Steve - It was very important to start the CD off with a song that caught the listener's attention immediately but also represented the overall musical direction of the CD. I had wanted the song Big to be the opener, but thankfully Victor and his brother Frank talked me into Blank - it was the right choice for the first track.
Victor - We wanted a song that we thought could grab any listener, regardless of the genre.
Mark – Great plan! "Deep" and "Blank" have what I called an 'Eddie Jobson' vocal sound. Am I close Stephen, and was that intentional?
Steve - It was not intentional, but it's a great comparison. I am often compared to Geddy Lee of the late 70's and early 80's too. I don't try to sound or reproduce anyone but the influences certainly shine through.
Mark – "Deep" also has that cool opening cascading guitar effect. Share the secret in how you created that amazing sound.
Steve - The opening begins with two harmonized guitar melodic lines over a building melodic progression that the bass and guitar play in unison. There is also an automated keyboard arpeggio in the background, in the style of Tony Banks in "The Carpet Crawlers". Together it creates a feeling of ominous tension that resolves as the first vocal line appears.
Mark – Ok "Hot". Tell us about how fun the video, oh yah, and the song was to create?
Click here to see the video for "Hot",
Steve - A lot of fun! I always wanted to write a foot stompin' guitar driven instrumental. The song is meant to be light hearted - almost the antithesis of the first two songs. Hopefully it comes across as us just having fun, the video definitely does.
Victor - It sure was fun for me to play. It was a style I had not really played before and I had a blast trying to be creative with it.
Mark – "Seeing" has another one of those cool guitar sequences. Was this similar to construct as the one for "Deep"? Was that a nasty spring or winter storm you're describing in the lyrics?
Steve - When I was writing the music, I didn't purposely try to follow a structure or pattern from song to song. I think I was just in that zone, or direction, at the time of composition so you may hear some similarities. As far as the storm, I do a lot of driving throughout New York State. I have been on the NY State Thruway and the Northway and have seen all kinds of things, especially weather events. Lyrically, the song really belongs on Observations, as it really is an observation of what I see as I'm cruising. It was a summer hail storm that had the threat of a tornado. Large pieces of hail bombarding the road, the sky turning dark as night and the wind gaining strength with every mile I drove. I was contemplating pulling over, but I kept on "Driving into the night, ready to win the fight".
Mark – While we're on the subject of the weather in Syracuse, I have family from Syracuse and I toured the Finger Lakes back in the 70s as a child. Tell everyone how cool that area of the country is. Don't leave out Niagara Falls. What are the band's favorite things to do when you're not playing or writing music?
Steve - As a former Long Islander, I never thought I could live anywhere else. I will tell you that Central New York is awesome! From Syracuse to Rochester is just amazing. The Finger Lakes are great, it's a nice way to unwind and relax. Buffalo is so cool too and Niagara Falls is something to see for sure. Toronto is only two hours from Buffalo so you can really do so much. Hockey, football, music, theme parks and of course the outdoors - it's awesome.
My favorite thing to do when I'm not playing music is to watch my kids play Ice Hockey - and they both play every weekend for 10 of the 12 months. It's so much fun watching them compete, make great friends and learning life lessons through the game. I was a team manager for one year and it was a great experience.
Mark – Have you been to the Adirondacks in the fall? Nice huh? That would be a great place to write or rehearse an album?
Steve - I have been to many parts of the Adirondacks, especially Lake Placid. It is definitely an inspirational place and I have indeed thought about spending a summer there and just writing music. The scenery and the setting inspires me to write acoustic songs, as being in the grips of nature makes me want to leave all modern technology behind. After a CD like Spots, to follow up with an acoustic CD might raise some eyebrows huh? So the musically inspired Adirondack concept will be on hold for now.
Mark – Ok, back to the music. "Tough" lives up to its name. Do you prefer instrumental tracks over lyrical excursions, and why?
Steve - I love instrumentals. We never had an instrumental on a CD until Tense, which had two.
Observations had one. So I was confident that we could write instrumentals. Spots, in its infancy stage, was going to be a completely instrumental CD. We might still do that one day, but a song with great lyrics and melody that still combines great playing is my preference if I had to choose.
Victor - I think you need to have a blend. Instrumentals have to be intriguing to the listener - the instruments are the voice. If an instrumental has a good melody in it, it can still be accepted by a vocal preference listener.
Mark – "Age", yah, we're all feeling it, even if we still feel vibrant and ready to do a lot more with our lives. How do you and the band fight aging?
Steve - Music keeps us young. Whenever we are playing together, I just feel so young at heart. Always find something that keeps you learning. Keep setting goals and have something to strive for - that is what keeps me feeling young.
Victor - Staying active in music - lessons, studio work - that keeps me feeling young as well.
Mark – "Sun", "Big", and "Wet" are all great tracks full of some great memories of progressive rock's past. Which bands have been your biggest influences?
Steve - From my childhood its Rush of course, but also ELP, King Crimson, Genesis and Yes.
Victor - My influences are Deep Purple, Dio, Genesis, Yes and of course Rush.
Mark – If there were two shows I missed that I wish I could get back, they would be Led Zeppelin during their, "Presence" tour back in '77, and "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway" Tour back in '74/75, in the Cleveland Ohio area. How about you guys?
(I was too young for the 'Gabriel era'. At least to go to shows. It was hard enough to get the albums covers passed parental supervision).
Steve - I totally agree with Genesis' "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway". I did not start seeing Genesis Live until the Abacab tour and then I never missed a U.S tour. How I wish I could have seen "the Lamb". I also wish I could have seen Frank Zappa's band during the "Live in NY" and "Sheik Yerbouti" period. At least I have the DVD's! Love that lineup!
Mark – Tell us about the "G" track? Is this Dave's favorite Unified Past track ever?
Steve - Yes it is! Dave plays the first half of that excursion with Chief Big Way and then in the studio he added the second half. He was real psyched that we put it on the CD. It's another moment where we needed a fun spot. Coming off of two extremely deep instrumentals, we needed to relax a moment before you get to The Final.
Mark – Absolutely. "The Final" is a great closer for the band. Describe how the song developed and how Unified Past works through the creative process.
Steve - It was three different songs at first. The middle was the first part I wrote. I was trying to create a synth loop paying homage to the Who's "Baba O'Reilly" and "Eminence Front" with a touch of "Won't Get Fooled Again". Then I had the vocal part of the song as its own piece and they fit together quite well. Then at the end we revisited the middle of "Big" in a new key. The reason we did that was because originally, "Big" was going to be the opening track and we thought it would be cool to end the album the way it began, like Genesis did on "Duke". That song sequence did not materialize, but we left the Final that way anyway.
Mark – What an honor it must have been to work with Ed Unitsky. Every time he sends me artwork on Facebook it's like a Christmas gift. How did you guys gather together the concept for the artwork on Spots?
Steve - Ed's the professional artist. We let him do his own thing. I sent him the music and let it speak to him artistically. We never said what we wanted or expected. We just said - here you go, make us a CD cover - and boy did he do just that! The experience of working with Ed was so amazing. We are really fortunate to have worked with him.
Mark – It's been a while since Observations came out in 2011. Please tell the readers about the concept behind the album.
Steve - Lyrically, every song was an observation of things I have seen and experienced. Musically, as I said earlier, it was experimental at times, and it was a lot of fun to make.
I wanted to write from a direction I never did before. Exploratory Observations was the first song I had every written without a guitar.
Mark – That vinyl sound on the opening of "I'm Not Answering" is so cool. The CD was also decorated to look like it had grooves. Do you listen to or miss the sound of vinyl that much, or is it more of a revolt against technology in general?
Steve - I miss vinyl. I still have my turntable and my LP's. There is a sound that comes from vinyl that is just special. The record scratch intro was meant to remind the listener that we are indeed a 70's influenced band.
Mark – Observations has more of a '80s Rush presence than I think Spots does. Was that intentional?
Steve - Not intentional at all but definitely an accurate description. Our former keyboardist, Vinny Krivacsy, co-wrote several tunes and he really has that style and influence of '80's Rush. If you really study the CD, you can tell which sections are mine and which are Vinny's. Since Vinny is not on Spots, it was just Vic and I, so there was no one to balance our power prog attack.
Mark – "Mr. Extravagant", with that excellent slicing acoustic guitar at the opening, is both grand and bold. Where can you trace the inspiration for that opening?
Steve - Believe it or not, I was hearing Todd Rundgren and Utopia in my head when I wrote that.
Mark – The opening effects on "Insulated" foretells the magnitude of the story behind this masterpiece. How do you decide what and how many effects to use on a track? (There were not as many on Spots).
Steve - All of the sound effects throughout the CD were the genius of our producer Frank Tassone. Being an experimental CD, we thought it would be cool to add that touch. Originally, we wanted all of the songs to flow together like a Pink Floyd listening experience. That concept didn't materialize though. Spots is meant to be a "live" experience so the sound effects just had no place on the recording.
Mark – "Crushed" has some fantastic opening keys. Which keyboard player are you most influenced by?
Steve- I'm really a keyboard hack - really! Since I went to school for music, I know how to get around on one good enough, but my technique is like typing with one or two fingers. I often hear Tony Banks in my head though when I write.
Mark – Victor Tassone is solid throughout both of these albums, ("Painful Observations" is one of those moments), with some real high points. What is his favorite track on any UP album so far?
Victor - My favorite song that we have done is "Tough". I just love the heavy feel and the contrast that occurs from section to section.
Mark – Drummers don't seem to want to do the Ginger Baker/Phil Collins solos any more. If given the chance, would Tassone like to let it rip on a drum solo for the next album?
Victor - I wouldn't record a studio drum solo but if we ever did a live CD I sure would.
Mark – "The Move", sounds like another old favorite from Yes or maybe even the band Zebra, with that excellent acoustic guitar opening. Who inspired that opening?
Steve - The opening is definitely influenced by Zebra as well as Yes. It's actually the same tuning as Yes' "I've Seen All Good People".
Mark – "Mesmerized" and "Remember When" are such great songs full of emotion. Would you like to explain some of the inspiration for these excellent tracks?
Steve - "Remember When" is an adult yearning to escape from the responsibilities of adult hood and wanting the simple days of childhood. It is my favorite song from that CD. I think the listener can really feel the pain in the story teller's soul and can also relate to it as well.
"Mesmerized" is another tune that Vinny wrote and the mood is just so dark yet so positive. I wanted to write lyrics that somehow reflected both states of mind.
Mark – Goal achieved! "Here They Come" closes Observations perfectly. Since I asked you about opening an album, how do you prepare to close an album?
Steve - I think the song sequence from beginning to end is so important to the listener's experience. We placed "Here They Come" last on purpose. We felt it was the most powerful tune on the CD and always want the last song to leave the listener feeling emotionally fulfilled yet almost sad that the experience is over.
Mark – Nice! Do you have plans to tour Spots?
Steve - Yes, but not for months down the road. We are beginning to try out keyboardists and who knows how long that will take. We will not rush the process. It has to be the right fit from both a musical and a chemistry perspective.
Mark – Any plans for the West Coast?
Steve - When we are ready, anywhere is possible.
Victor - Absolutely.
Mark – I like Victor's answer better! (laughs) Describe some of the other collaborative projects any of the band members are working on now and in the future. (Please include release dates).
Steve - Dave is playing with Joey Belladonna's Chief Big Way in Central NY. They play constantly.
Victor - I am playing drums on an upcoming release by Oceans 5 - sometime late summer, I have played on the Colin Tench Project and one track on the first Corvus Stone CD.
Mark – What is "UP" next for Unified Past? (Couldn't help the pun.)
Steve - Find a keyboard player, start playing live again. We are also remixing "Tense" and it will come across the way it was intended to. We are always working on new tunes, but nothing is in the near future.
Mark – Is there anything else I did not cover that you would like to share with your present and future fans?
Steve - We appreciate all of the support our fans have given us and we are looking forward to continue to meet new fans and make more music!
Victor - Our goal is to continue to introduce Spots to as many fans of the prog genre as we can.
Thank you again for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer some questions for us. We at the Sea of Tranquility wish Unified Past much success with the launch of Spots and all that you do in the future.
(Click here to read our reviews of Spots)