When Sea of Tranquility staff writer Mark Johnson purchased their last album Angular Perceptions back in 2010 he had hoped to one day review a future release and interview the band. Well
2013 is here and those wishes are being fulfilled. Thought Chamber has just released their sophomore album Psykerion, and Mark had a chance to catch up with main composer/guitarist Michael Harris, as well as keyboard player Bill Jenkins, vocalist Ted Leonard, drummer Mike Haid, and bassist Jeff Plant.
Mark- We're here with Michael Harris the main composer of Thought Chamber whose band has the coolest name since
well Dream Theater of course. I'm still surprised that no one else was able to claim your cool band name before you. Your thoughts
actually my original band name was "Julius Seizure", which is one of my original instrumental compositions, but I seemed to be the only one who liked it. My next suggestion was "Scientwist". Same problem. We then considered "Mr. Qwinkle's Therapy", which was the name of an instrumental from the first TC record, but I felt it was too humorous for our music. We finally agreed on Thought Chamber, which originated from my 2001 solo instrumental CD entitled, "Sketches from the Thought Chamber".
Mark Tell us about the band's genesis and evolution as you prepare to release your sophomore album.
Michael The concept of a vocal prog band was originally suggested to me by my manager, John Purdom, some years ago. I eventually put an ad out online and Ted responded. Ted & I started working on demos shortly thereafter. After the material was ready, we recruited Rob Stankiewicz on drums (who had played in my live band) & Derek Blakley on bass. It was Derek who suggested Bobby Williamson to contribute some keyboard solos. I commend all 3 of those guys for the fabulous job they did on the record. Since that time, we all became busy with other projects, but eventually I finished enough material for the record which became "Psykerion", and started to record it with Rob & Derek, who shortly thereafter had to step down from the band. Ted & I then recruited 3 new members: drummer Mike Haid, bassist Jeff Plant, and keyboardist Bill Jenkins, who all did a stellar job on "Psykerion".
Mark I'm sure I'm not the first to notice the similarities between Steve Walsh and Ted Leonard vocally. Beyond the great compliment, is there a downside to the effect?
Michael That's a valid comparison, and I don't see a downside there, as hardly any bands / vocalists anywhere sound like Kansas / Walsh! And in an era where rock music has been around 50 + years, and everything has been done 1000x, everybody sounds like somebody. And Ted's definitely got his own thing going vocally.
Mark I would love to go back and discuss Angular Perceptions because it was such an incredible album, but let's move on to the new album Psykerion. This album has everything any prog or rock fan could desire. Great vocals, chunky bass, fantastic lead guitar riffs, powerful drumming, and my favorite part, some of the best keyboards since that other band, (whose name I will no longer mention). You've really created one of the best albums of the year. What was it like to be in the studio when the creative process was fermenting or flowing for Psykerion?
Michael - Much thanks Mark, and I agree on my band mate's stellar performances and Bill's exceptional keyboard work! As far as being in the studio, the creative and recording process is always exciting, and this was no exception, especially knowing that the performances from this group of musicians would be so solid.
Bill - For me, what made this so much fun to work on was that the concept was sci-fi based, which offered so much creative freedom. I didn't have to always think about musical parts, sometimes it was more of listening to what was already there and imagining what kind of tones and sound effects would enhance it. Michael's fantastic guitar work always pushed me to come up with stuff to try to keep up with him. It was nice being able to experiment with crazy ideas and get solid feedback on what would fit with the original vision for the songs.
Mark You described the Psykerion album concept well in your press release, but would you like to draw in your audience with a further elaboration on the theme?
Michael The story is really about life and much more a human drama than a sci-fi epic. I'm probably channeling some of my own beliefs through it. Anyway, so we have this youngster, Avakus, who's incredibly intelligent for his age, taking on so much of everything, and going through so many emotions during this cosmic voyage, from fear initially to technological overload to the shock of witnessing man's inhumanity to man to developing a philosophy of life, to some kind of resolution at the end. I didn't want to write yet another "group A blows up group B" story. Hollywood already does that so well.
Mark "Inceptus" kicks things off with great drums and those brilliant keyboards which make this one of my favorite albums of the year. "Premonition", off Angular Perceptions was more of a guitar wizardry opener. Was the change intentional?
Michael On the first record, the point of "Premonition" was to be kind of a sneak preview of the whole album, so I used 3 or 4 themes/melodies from the record in composing it. For the "Psykerion" opener, "Inceptus", I used the main "Psykerion" theme in free time. I kind of thought about it like a film, starting with the musical theme, which is restated several times throughout the "movie".
Mark "Exodus" is full of more of that excellent keyboard work at the opening. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of power lead electric guitar moments as well. Many memories of Rush in there. Are they one of the bands that inspired the sound?
Michael I actually wasn't thinking Rush at all when I wrote "Exodus". It was written around the time of the first TC record, so I have to really think back, but I was probably thinking more along the lines of "Mars: Bringer of War" from Holst's "The Planets". I particularly love the sense of urgency in that piece. I was really just trying to set a mood for the "Pysykerion" storyline, and a cool proggy way to do that is to have a snare playing a repeated phrase and ominous chords on top. So the beginning keyboards are just setting a mood for the storyline, which is that Avakus and the ship's crews are preparing for the exodus, or departing. Then @ :22, I come in with a clean guitar, using a rather strange pull off pattern that involves hybrid picking. Then I'm joined by Bill's arpeggios. Then it goes into the main snare-driven proggy phrase, which every 6 bars contains a 1 bar riff that slips out and back into key. Then Bill & I trade solos until the end. All that in a minute and a half, ha.
Mark "Psykerion: The Question" brings forth the first vocals from Leonard and the storyline. Leonard does a great job of making a dramatic entrance. He packs some powerful vocals early. How do you go about deciding which track or way you will kick off the album? In some ways the two instrumentals before this track were like dual openers.
Michael Right - I could have considered those 2 to be the same instrumental, but decided to give them 2 names. The music has mostly to do with the storyline. Even though there were no lyrics up to that point, I was still composing with a storyboard in mind, initially in "Inceptus", projecting that something important or ominous is about to transpire, and then in "Exodus", that they are preparing for the voyage. Finally when the lyrics come in on "Psykerion: The Question", the trip has started, and those lyrics paint the scenario of being on the ship and imply what the mission was.
Mark "In the Words of Avakus". Tell us a little more about the character Avakus. Who is he? Why is he so motivated to take this journey?
Michael Avakus is our main character, a child genius / prodigy who is also the captain's son. He has the opportunity to tag along on this voyage, and although most of his family and friends aren't able to go, he can't refuse this opportunity of a lifetime, especially because the ship "Kerakryps-One", is like a small city in space. The lyrics in "Avakus" reflect his apprehension about the trip, but then he falls into a slumber as this song morphs into "Light-Year Time", which is lyrically just a happy dream, and awakes with a better perspective in "Kerakryps".
Mark "Light Year Time" is one of the most upbeat tracks on the album. It is also the most Kansas like track on the album. When Leonard sings you are right back there in "Left Overture" or even earlier than that in the Kansas discography.
Michael I wanted to step up to the challenge of writing an "accessible" song in a major key (without sounding trite) and in an odd time signature (11/8 to be exact), and that became "Light Year Time". To my ears, it has a bit of a Yes or Styx feel, although I love early Kansas.
Mark How would you describe the "city like" ship - "Kerakryps"? (I imagined something like Elysium in the movie released this summer).
Michael Kerakryps-One is "city-like" in both size and inner design, with moving vehicles, shopping and entertainment districts, etc. John Holland designed the ultra cool outer ship, which you see in the booklet. Lyrically, Avakus has awakened and acclimated to his new environment enough to take in and be awestruck by the inner Kerakryps-One. There are a couple more Kerakryps on the voyage, by the way. You have to look close in the booklet to see the fleet.
Mark In my review I mentioned "The Black Hole Lounge" gave me impressions of the Star Wars "Cantina". How far off was I?
Michael My initial idea on what became "The Black Hole Lounge" was to simply write a jazz version of the "Psykerion" theme so the melody there is the same melody you hear in the first notes of "Inceptus", again twice in "Psykerion: The Question", a bit in "Recoil", and at the end of "Inner Peace". But in "TBHL" I re-wrote that theme using jazz chords, and Bill, Jeff, and Mike did a great job jazzifying it even more. I played the melody/theme on slide guitar with a tremolo effect.
Mark Michael Harris' father is a successful jazz musician. I'd like to give Michael a chance to talk about how his father influenced his playing and composing.
Michael The biggest inspiration from my father is that he's not only still alive, but he's still kicking ass! He still has his own swing band. Both my mother and father are music majors. Music chose me.
Mark How did you create those computer sounds on "Circuits of O.D.D."?
Michael-There are no computer sounds in "Circuits of O.D.D.", but there probably should have been! Bill & I dug into our Korg or Yamaha keyboards for any sound effects that you might hear on the record, although we didn't want to go too far out with that. It's all about the music.
Mark You provide a very serious character set up for Ikk in the track, "Behind the Eyes of Ikk". Which science fiction machine is he modeled after? Hal? Or worse?
Michael You're on the right track. Actually "Circuits of O.D.D." is a tip of the hat to good ol' HAL (also my fathers name, btw), with the Kerakryp's computer system being the acronym "O.D.D.", which I deemed to stand for "Obsessive Digital Disorder", (so-called because a computer is much more "OCD" than a human can ever be, ha-ha.) Regarding "Ikk", I originally had him pegged to be a friendly alien, but that's been done, so I then made him a robot, but the lyrics didn't fit, so finally Ikk became a "lab experiment gone awry". Regardless of his origin, his character is much more important. Ikk is a 9 foot tall one-eyed hairy dude who is definitely not a ladies man, but is gifted with a side splitting sense of humor. So he became a stand-up comedian who performed at a bar inside Kerakryps-One, called "The Palace of the Sick". I must have been channeling "Chewbacca" a bit, although I'm truly not a Jed-Head (nor a Trekkie).
Mark "Isle of Bizen" is such a great track. I think you read my review and comparison. But tell us more about this enchanting place.
Michael Thank you so much. "Bizen" is basically an island where Avakus grew up or traveled to often as a child. Not knowing 100% that he will safely return from this voyage, he's reminiscing about his early life on an island beach. Bill actually recorded the splashing waves at Big Sur during a vacation he took while we were recording the album. So you're actually hearing the Pacific Ocean at Big Sur California on the intro.
Mark Tell us more about what or who is "Xyrethius II", since it is an instrumental track.
Michael "Xyrethius" is a planet in the galaxy of "Psykerion", and the "Xyrethians" are our friends who we are joining forces with against a common enemy. On my "Sketches From the Thought Chamber" CD in 2001, I had a song entitled "Voyage to Xyrethius", which inspired this whole "Psykerion" concept, as it featured the subtitle "Race Through Psykerion". "Xyrethius II" is a musical tip of the hat to that, and the ending is a recurring musical theme to the original version's intro.
Mark "Recoil" has that wonderful violin that every Kansas fan has been waiting for. How much fun was it to add that finishing touch?
Bill I can't remember what sound we had originally for the intro melody, but we wanted something that would emote better there. No matter which violin or cello patches I tried on synth, we all knew it wasn't the real thing. I am fortunate enough to know a fantastic violinist, Jim Hurley, who I emailed to ask if he'd be willing to track that line for us and he was. As soon as he played it, I knew that was going to be what we used - his playing had all the emotion I just couldn't get on a synth. While he was in the studio he was willing to record more violin through the rest of the song as well. It added so much more character. It was a blast working with him.
We can't thank Jim enough for stepping in for us.
Michael Agreed, great work from Jim and kudos to Bill for handling that session.
Mark "Breath of Life" is another of my favorites on the album. Tell us how you created that great organ sound that warms the scene so well.
Bill The original track had an organ patch from Michael's Motif that wasn't bad. At the time, Korg was working on new features for the Kronos' CX-3 voice model, so I experimented with that to get a warm gritty tone that layered well with the original. While there ain't nuthin' like the real thing (i.e. B3), we were pretty happy with the end result.
Michael I'm grateful that you singled that out as a fave, Mark. I had actually considered not including it on the record or using it as a bonus, but Bill talked me out of it! I love the melody, space, and breadth of it all, but I didn't want anyone to think we were wimping out, ha. I'm glad we kept it on the record.
Mark "Transcend" is another of my favorite tracks. What do you or the band do to transcend the muddled world in which we seem to live? (That acoustic guitar is perfect. The reggae beat
Michael We play music! Regarding the reggae, yes we all brought out our inner "Marley" on that section. The song in general is one of the more optimistic ones melody-wise and very proggy. I hear some Rush, Yes, and a little Styx in it. Lyrically, it mostly has to do with man's desire to excel. A standard is set, and someone else exceeds it. And the chain goes on. Avakus is getting really deep into thought here.
Mark "Planet Qwinkle" has a connection to Angular Perceptions. Please describe the connection and story behind Qwinkle, for those who may not have purchased Angular Perceptions.
Michael For an instrumental on "Angular", I created a character named "Mr. Qwinkle" for the song "Mr. Qwinkle's Therapy". At some point way back, I had decided to make him a recurring character on all TC records. "Planet Qwinkle" was a blast to record. Everyone got to chop it up! On the next record, we'll have "Qwinkle's Relapse".
Mark "Inner Peace" closes the album well. With Voyager passing beyond this galaxy this week, does our future lie beyond this galaxy or sun?
Michael - Quite possibly. We're presently looking for volunteers to colonize Mars for crissakes. We're moving at light speed. It's amazing. Regarding "Inner Peace", it completes "Psykerion" and offers optimism in both the lyrics and music, giving the story a happy ending.
Mark Do you have a tour planned to support Psykerion? Will you play the full album live?
Michael We would love to tour. Time will tell. Playing the whole "Psykerion" album would be a fun challenge!
Mark - I just read you have been invited to ProgPower USA for September 2014? Tell us about the genesis of the invite?
Michael You heard correctly. A band pulled out and we hopped on it quickly! We are presently discussing our set list, which will be 1 hour.
Mark- Also, who are you most excited to see while you're in Atlanta for the show?
Michael Pain of Salvation.
Mark What artists are in the top five of your favorite listening device right now?
Bill - Robert Glasper Trio, The Bad Plus, Pat Metheny, Animals As Leaders, and Venetian Snares.
Michael I've been mostly suffering through my own demos (ha), but also Darkology, Steve Morse Band, Mahavishnu Orchestra, 7 for 4.
Ted Beardfish, Spock's Beard (yes, I know....but still a fan), Kansas, Dirty Loops, The Lonely Island.
Mike The Aristocrats, Karizma Live with Vinnie Colaiuta, Jon Cleary & the Absolute Monster Gentlemen, Greg Mathieson & Friends Live at the Baked Potato,
Thought Chamber "Psykerion".
Jeff - Of Monsters and Men, Emmanuelle Bertrand, Carla Kihlstedt, Laco Tayfa, Elbow.
Mark What is the next concept brewing in the Thought Chamber?
Michael More music! We're starting on the next record within a few months. At this point, we don't envision another concept record, but plenty of surprises.
Mark Leave us on a high note with one of your latest/favorite jokes?
Thought Chamber Q: how many prog bands does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: only 1 - but it takes them 22 1/2 minutes to do it.
Mark Is there anything else you would like to add that I have not covered?
Thought Chamber Thanks to you Mark, our fans, and to anyone who boycotts mainstream radio!
(Click here to read our reviews of Psykerion)