Sea Of Tranquility writer Jack Toledano recently caught up with Russell Allen, lead vocalist of Symphony X, to talk about the release of Russell's first solo project, Atomic Soul. They also talked about future happenings of Symphony X. Russell was most generous with his time, and indeed very informative when it came to chatting about the production of the CD, and all of the players involved. Russell was also very funny and friendly.
Read on for the full interview!
SoT: What made you decide to do a classic 70's style hard rock CD as opposed to Symphony X's more progressive style?
Russell Allen: Well, it's the kind of music that I always liked, so it didn't make any sense for me to do something like the band.
SoT: Just for the record, I've heard people talk about your influences in the past, but could you go through a few of those?
Russell Allen: Yeah, I'm a big Zeppelin guy, Sabbath, Deep Purple, the big 70's bands, Thin Lizzy, Humble Pie, big Paul Rodgers guy, I really like him a lot, Glenn Hughes.
SoT: I hear a little Glenn Hughes in the CD.
Russell Allen: A little bit here and there. Badlands, Ray Gillen, Dio, of course. I guess that's it. It's early man, my brain's still waking up.
SoT: (chuckles) Same here.
Russell Allen: I mean, most of the bands I really like are all from that time, when I was really young and, early Judas Priest, and Iron Maiden, and a lot of early 80's metal, they all pretty much influenced me. I didn't consciously say, hey, I'm gonna right a song that sounds like Black Sabbath, I just wrote the songs, they just kinda came out.
SoT: So basically, all of your influences all rolled into one are kind of what you had in mind when you created Atomic Soul?
Russell Allen: I wanted to do more of a bluesy based rock music with the production that went with it, I wanted more of an organic sort of production, I didn't want anything overdone, and I just wanted it to really breathe, just a completely different approach then what the band does.
SoT: Were all of the songs on Atomic Soul written specifically for this CD, or were any ideas brought over from your Symphony X work?
Russell Allen: Nah, this is all specific to the CD, and I didn't have anything laying around for years, a lot of people have been asking me that. Basically, in November 2003 I started taking the idea seriously. I was talking about it with friends of mine, in addition to the industry, all this other kind of stuff, feeling everyone out, saying hey, if I did a record, would you do it with me? And they're like, yeah man, just tell me, all these cats, Mick V, Metal Mike from Halford, all these metal guys. And they're like, just give me a call, and all this other stuff. It just kinda got to a point where this band finally had some downtime, and I started taking it seriously. I started writing and I didn't have any material or anything, and I didn't even know if I could do it. I've always been a collaborator in bands as a singer. And for 8 years I really never even written my own songs in a long time, I just always focused my energies on what my contributions were to Symphony X, and nothing else, really. That's how it kinda happens.
SoT: Ok, that kind of leads me to the next question, what can you tell us about some of the guest musicians on your CD?
Russell Allen: They're all friends, they're all people that are very close to me, and some new friends, like Robert Nelson is a new friend, but he's a really great guy, he's on the drums. He's an old friend of Michael Romeo's, they used to be in a band called "Phantom's Opera" together. It predates Symphony X. So Mike introduced me to him, he said he would fit perfectly for the type of music that I was doing, and the kind of sound I wanted. I needed that sort of "bottomesque" sort of guy, and he fit perfectly for what I was looking for. And then there was Brendan Anthony, who was the other main guy in the group, he is an old friend of mine. We were in a band together before I was in Symphony X (chuckles), kinda funny, you know, but that's great, kind of rekindle a friendship that I lost touch with over the years, I hadn't really focused in on in a long time. So that was pretty cool. Michael Romeo of course helped me out with a lot of stuff.
SoT: I figured he'd be on there.
Russell Allen: Yeah, he's on there, 3 tracks, he played a lot of bass on the record, I was struggling to get a bassist that could do it, and he said, "Hey, I'll do it. I love playing with Bob."
SoT: Oh, so he played bass on the whole album?
Russell Allen: Pretty much, I played 2 songs, he played, and I had Larry Salvatore, another friend from me and Brendan's old band, played one song. And Mike played the rest. He played a whole bunch. He played "We Will Fly". He played like 8 songs, I think. So, uh, it was awesome. He's like, "I love playing with Robert, he's so much fun". And they used to stay after their old band practice, and everyone else was leaving, and Mike would put down the guitar and pick up the bass and start playing with Bob all night (chuckles). So like, I didn't know that, and once I kinda realized that, and I said "Yeah?", and he said "Oh yeah, it'll be great." So it was totally cool, I didn't need to go looking for any bass players after that. Yeah, I think it will help this guy, they will notice him really well.
SoT: Ok, how about keyboards?
Russell Allen: Keyboards? I played keyboards a little bit. Like the "Voodoo Hand" solo and "The Distance", I did both those. And then Jens Johannson came and played on the title track. He gave me that really great Deep Purple thing I was looking for.
SoT: Oh really, he did the one on "Atomic Soul" at the end?
Russell Allen: Yeah
SoT: Ok, yeah, because that sounded a lot like Jon Lord.
Russell Allen: Yeah, totally, I said "Hey, you know I got this sort of Deep Purple and Boston kind of song, so if you could come down and play some".
SoT: Kind of reminded me of "Flight of the Rat", if you know that song.
ssell Allen: Yeah, he said, "I got it covered. I have that line, the opening line, the (starts humming keyboard riff). I have all that written out". And I said "Hey, you know, could you just kind of stick out to chorus and see the thing, but just kind of keep this opening line to the rest of the song, whatever you want". And he just said "Sure". He didn't even hear the song, and he took a train down from New York. He got off the train, and I played the stuff in the Jeep. He's like "I love it. It's great." You know, he was expecting probably more Symphony X stuff, too, like everyone else.
SoT: Again, we're talking about Jens Johannson?
Russell Allen: Yeah.
SoT: Really? Now, he's from Stratovarius?
Russell Allen: Yeah.
SoT: Ok, and he's in New York right now?
Russell Allen: Uh yeah, well, he lives here.
SoT: Oh, Ok.
Russell Allen: He lives in New York, he's got an apartment there. I had known him for several years now. I mean, we toured together, and everything else. And being that he lives here, I've been to dinner with him several times, and just hung out. I know him pretty good. Mike introduced me to him a few years back, and I got to know him. So that was a lot of fun, seeing him again, hanging out, just having a few drinks, and he just pretty much stepped in and lit up the song. About an hour, and that was it. We went to dinner, and it was great. That was a good time, working with him.
SoT: Ok, great! How about Michael Pinnella, is he on there at all?
Russell Allen: I was just gonna mention him next. He's playing on "We Will Fly". I had all the pre-production piano done, I played the basics and kind of outlined some of the idea I had and I said "Hey, you know, just go down this". And actually, the middle part of the song, the add section, the whole flying sort of part, I was gonna have that be sort of a musical section or a guitar thing or something, and he started playing the piano there, soloing, and I said "Hey, that's great. Let's do this". He did such a good job, that I made that sort of a feature for him. And he was really cool, he came down, the same sort of thing, him and Jens, just really talented guys. Just came down and heard my songs.
SoT: I know, I heard his (Michael Pinnella's) solo album also, it's really good.
Russell Allen: Yeah, it's really cool. Two nights I think he had, that was pretty cool. Then Jason from Murder One, he's the guitar player, he helped work with me on the song "Blackout". He had that opening riff, and I pretty much wrote the rest of the song after that. But he had that opening riff, it was so cool, it has this sort of Sabbathy feel, I like this. And then, I mentioned Larry Salvatore before, he plays bass on "Voodoo Hand". An old friend of me and Brendan's. I'm trying to think who else plays bass. And me, I played bass. I played bass on a couple tracks, I played all the acoustics, and one solo on "The Distance".
SoT: Ok, actually, it's funny, one of the other writers at Sea Of Tranquility suggested one or two questions, but you kind of brought that up. I was gonna change the question a little bit. So, you're definitely playing guitar and playing other instruments. And me, having listened to Symphony X, I've always known you as a lead vocalist. How long have you been playing all these different instruments?
Russell Allen: For a long time. I started out really young. My first lessons were drum lessons. Believe it or not, and I played those for a little while. I didn't stick with it. I bounced around all over the place, and my parents wanted to shoot me.
Russell Allen: I was like, clarinet in school, band instrument if you want to call it that. But I was really young, when I went to grade school. Then I started taking piano lessons. My mother wanted me to play piano, so I took those for about 3 years. Stopped that, it didn't even work, then I saw Eddie Van Halen finally when I was in like 7th grade, and I said "I wanna play guitar, Ma". The guitar I stuck with the longest. I played straight for a solid 7 or 8 years everyday, I was totally into it. And the singing of course, and the guitar and the bass are in the same ballpark. So I kind of picked up a bass at the same time, and that's pretty much it. I play the harmonica a little bit, too, I didn't do any on this album, that's pretty much it. I've always been into the singing and that's been my first and strongest thing. But over the years, I still maintain my guitar playing, but I haven't seriously played in about 8 years. It took a while to get the calluses back.
SoT: Right, I know about those (both chuckle). Is there anything you would like to talk about the production of the CD, and where it was recorded, and who was involved in the production?
Russell Allen: Yeah, I recorded at "The Dungeon", that's the band's studio.
SoT: Of Michael Romeo, right?
Russell Allen: Michael Romeo. So he was my tracking engineer. I produced the tracks with him there. That was really cool, Mike's a very good engineer. He's really come a long way. And then (yawns), ooh, I'm sorry.
SoT: No problem (chuckles).
Russell Allen: And then I ended up taking the mixes over to Don's Deck at Mixolidians, and he really gave me a great sound. And I enjoyed working with Don, he's an old school cat, he really knows his shit, you know. It's cool because I was going to mix with Mike, it's just that the time was getting too long, and we were having frequency problems in the studio. And we didn't realize that the room wasn't acoustically sound, the control room. And we had never noticed it, but see, he had changed everything since "The Odyssey". He put a new desk in there. He had changed a lot of the room, and he had never done it. And it was something we didn't think of, and he never did a tone generator and checked the room. Sure enough, there were all these problems. But it was after the fact, after 2 weeks of trying to start mixing. We were having all these problems at 1.8 kHz and about 1k, all around there. It was those upper mids, I was scratching my head, and I was like "What the hell, man? I don't know what the hell's wrong." And also, Mike was making the mixes, and he's a metal guy, he would make the drums so big. I tried to explain to him that I want more of an organic sound, kind of a stripped down sound to match these dry vocals that I'm going for. And he was like "Hey look, why don't you take it to Don, we're having problems here. He knows all the vintage instruments, and he knows all his stuff, and I think he can give you what you're looking for." So sure enough, maybe fate, but I ended up going to Don and he had my mixes done in 3 days.
SoT: Oh that's great.
Russell Allen: I couldn't believe it, man. We were blowing through the stuff like crazy. That's just because it was just happening. You know, to Romeo's credit, I told him from the beginning I need clean tracks. Meaning that, sonically speaking, I want it to be that "it's there". You could almost bring up all the faders and there's the record. No editing, I mean like, Robert Nelson for example, the drummer, all those songs on the record are one take.
SoT: Wow, that's great!
Russell Allen: There's no finagling or editing, nothing. Just all one bam, that's it. And that's a big deal to do with all the rest of the other playing. And all the swells, and how all the dynamics are. So when I gave it to Don, he was like "Wow. This is great! I haven't heard this in 30 years." And so, he was just really enthusiastic about it. And he started pumping out these mixes, and like, it was awesome. And then, we had run everything back through an old tape machine, get that tape saturation, you know. It just warmed everything up, and put it right back into the 70's. And so I was really happy. It was a lot of fun producing the record and mixing it with Don.
SoT: Ok, next question, do you plan on doing any kind of solo tour for the album ?
Russell Allen: I don't have concrete plans at the moment, but I'd like to do it. It's a matter of two factors, really. It's a matter of time, because I'm really busy right now with the record. The other factor is the reaction of the fans, if there is a big reaction and it goes really good, then I wouldn't have a choice. I'd be an idiot if I didn't go play. Yeah, I'd definitely go do it, I'd love to do it. It's something that I'd have a lot of fun doing, because obviously, this music is really me. I filter all of my influences into Symphony X, but this is really what I'm about. It would be fun for me, it would be a good time, I've got the guys to go play. Brendan and Bob at least said they would go do it. So it's definitely floating around, they're kind of waiting around like I am. So if it goes well in the next few months, and it starts to move, and people are really saying "We want to see it", then I'll try to get something together at the end of the summer, or sometime before the end of the year. Before Symphony X at least starts to juggernaut, you know, like the whole world tour thing. We'll see what happens.
SoT: Do you plan on doing any other solo albums, or any other guest type performances like you did with Ayreon, or anything like that in the near future?
Russell Allen: Well, I bit off more than I could chew last year, I did the Mike Conicsole album, which is coming out now. Probably in August, late August there'll be a thing I did with Norm Lonnie from Master Plan, earlier on from last year, that they should be mixing now. (big yawn) Excuse me. Saturday morning, man, this is terrible. This is blasphemy!!!
SoT: (lol) Is it raining by you, too?
Russell Allen: Yeah. It's miserable today. But anyway, I did that project with him, and of course I have the Symphony X thing. And that's it. And this next year, if I do anything, it might be another "Atomic Soul" thing. I'm spread too thin man, you know. It wore me out. Some people are like "Aren't the fans gonna be bombarded with all this stuff, with all these things?" I haven't put out anything in 3 years so (chuckles) I'm making up for lost time. That's the way it happens. Nothing else but that right now. Who knows, in the next year or so, I might do another "Atomic Soul" record, I'm set up for 3 of them.
SoT: What can you tell us about Symphony X's plans for 2005 & beyond?
Russell Allen: Well, of course the band is really steaming ahead with this new record, and trying to wrap it up, and start tracking over the next month. Pretty heavy sounding, very riff driven.
SoT: Kinda like Odyssey?
Russell Allen: Yeah, but we're just raising the bar. We're upping the ante a little bit. Meaning that the songs, the songs in Odyssey, we were slaves to the song. If it sounded like something wasn't cool, it was gone. Whereas, in years past, we kind of just never really put the reins on it. The song would just stay up in lala land sometimes. That's not to say, like "The Odyssey" title track was 20 minutes. It's not a time thing, if it feels cool, that song felt great like that. It's just all about, whatever the song requires, we're even more focused on that, and very riff driven. More than ever, it's not just like (pauses), I can't explain it, man, Mike is just blowing me away. I can't believe how far he has come. Just to watch him grow as a player, you know, and as a musician. Me, too, we've kind of grown together. Everybody in the band really, but me and him, we're real close. We're good friends, he's like a brother to me. We spent a lot of time together. It's just really great to see what he's doing, and be a part of it. It's exciting.
Russell Allen: So I can't wait to get it out, and I'm sure the band is itching to play, and that's probably gonna be the next step is to book touring itineraries all over the world and get that whole thing going.
SoT: Do you have any idea of timing of the CD release & tour?
Russell Allen: I'd say the CD is gonna be out some time in the fall. It's gotta be out before the end of the year. At least, that's the way we feel about it. We're pretty much pushing for that. There was some speculation, we're in the works talking about doing this Megadeth thing. (Editors note-it has recently been posted on the bands website that they will NOT be doing this tour)
SoT: Oh really?
Russell Allen: Yeah, we got an offer from them, and it's been on the burner for a month now. I don't know, man. I think if we do anything with Mustaine it would be awesome, but right now it might be a little too much for us. Then we'd have to put the record off, or rush to get it done. And I think the band's kind of debating whether it's really worth it at this moment, because a tour is a tour, but an album lasts forever. It's a tough call, and we're going to just kind of maybe let the management make the call on this one. We really don't want to screw up this record. But other than that, that's pretty much it. We've been talking about a DVD and all this other stuff, so maybe on this tour it'll happen.
SoT: A DVD? Oh, that would be cool.
Russell Allen: But that's on the burner for maybe 2006, late 2005. At least to get it going, it wouldn't be available until the following year. You know, stuff like that, so that's pretty much what's cooking for the band.
SoT: Ok, is there anything that I might have missed that you'd like to add?
Russell Allen: Nah, I think we covered most of the bases.
SoT: Ok, well, great. I really appreciate your time and I look forward to hearing your material in the future.
Russell Allen: Cool man, thanks a lot. Glad you liked the CD.
SoT: It's really good. My son likes it too.
Russell Allen: (lol) Excellent.
SoT: All right, take care of yourself.
Russell Allen: All right, Jack, thanks a lot.
SoT: Take it easy, Russ.
Russell Allen: All right, bye.