With the release of the powerful Pepper's Ghost, a few festival dates, and a tour of Europe in the wings, drummer Mick Pointer spent some time with Sea of Tranquility Publisher Pete Pardo to discuss the flurry of positive and exciting activity surrounding his band Arena.
Read on for Pete's complete interview with Mick!
Sea of Tranquility: Thanks for joining us today Mick! How has the schedule been?
Mick Pointer: Pretty busy! Clive (Nolan) has been doing a lot of the interviews recently. My father passed away right in the middle of the album being released…
SoT: Oh, I'm very sorry to hear that. My condolences to you and your family on your loss.
Mick: Thank you…cheers. So for me it came in the middle of a busy time, but what can you do.
SoT: How has reaction been so far to Pepper's Ghost among fans as well as new listeners to the band?
Mick: It's been great actually. We say this all the time, but we actually seem to get a great reaction every time we release a new album, which is fabulous. Pepper's Ghost has been Album of the Month in a few magazines in Germany and a few other countries, and the reviews have been very positive even in magazines where we normally wouldn't expect good reviews. As for the sales, I actually couldn't tell you because it's too early yet, but we actually made it onto the French album charts, which we have never done before and are extremely happy with!
SoT: That's great!
Mick: So yeah, there have been a few things that have been particularly surprising, which is always good to have when you are on your sixth album.
Mick Pointer On Drums
SoT: In fact, on Sea of Tranquility, we have had two very positive reviews so far, and one of our writers, Duncan Glenday, has proclaimed Pepper's Ghost "perhaps Arena's crowning achievement to date".
Mick: Well that's extremely nice of him to say so! (laughs) Now where do we go from there? (laughs!)
SoT: You guys have presented the album as a comic book/Broadway play kind of concept, depending on how you look at it-can you talk a little bit about that?
Mick: Yes, sure. The way this came about, is we got a little fed up of bands having their photographs taken in front of a brick wall or standing in front of a tree, on the album covers. So, on this particular occasion we didn't want to have any publicity photographs, and instead wanted to create, not so much alter ego's, but completely different characters for ourselves. As you can see in the cartoon characters on the CD, they sort of resemble us a bit, but they are obviously not us (laughs). It was just nice to take the thing down a who completely different avenue. The guy that does our artwork, David Wyatt, he did Contagion as well, he used to work for a comic book company here in the UK, so he is very used to doing that kind of artwork. While we were working on Contagion we were talking to him about that, and that's where the seed of the idea came from. We felt we can't possibly NOT let this guy do something like this, and as time moved on it seemed like a great idea to put it all in a tiny book, so you actually have your own little comic book inside of the CD. It's so much better than having a picture of the band standing beside a lake or something like that.
SoT: Yeah, you can see that in countless other releases and it's kind of commonplace.
Mick: I don't think it's going to be everyone's cup of tea actually, and some might think we are poking fun at ourselves, which we are a little bit, but it's also quite entertaining to read it, I mean each of the five individual character's has their own story, and there are two other stories that encompass those five other stories. So yeah, I think it makes for a lot more of an interesting read, and the artwork is fantastic. It would have even been better had we done it for vinyl, as it could have been much larger, but that's one of the problem's with CD's, it's difficult to put a hell of a lot of artwork in and make it come across to the viewer, but I think the whole package looks really good actually.
SoT: Absolutely. I see you guys have returned to the "epic" song format with the final song on the CD called "Opera Fanatica"-how did that song come about?
Mick: Well, that pretty much is all from Clive on one of the very rare occasions. He wanted to do something completely that he has written himself. Normally we write everything together, musically anyway, and then John Mitchell comes along and puts his extra pieces and ideas into it when he has time, and we will add those together. Clive wanted to do something completely over the top with that song, and as you can see it is more keyboard oriented…
SoT: Oh yeah!
Mick: I said to him "yeah, go for it" and he did, and that's what we got.
SoT: It seems like the music on Pepper's Ghost is a return to the more symphonic sounds of the first few Arena albums, as opposed to the heavier direction on the last few releases. Was that a conscious decision of the band, or did it just work out that way?
Mick: No, not really. We don't actually sit down and say well, how's this one going to sound, and what actually are we going to do with this one to make it sound like something else. You do have a good point actually. In the beginning we were kind of heavy I think, and a lot of people over time have said with each album we keep getting heavier. That first album I think is quite heavy anyway, with songs like "Soloman", 'Valley of the Kings", and of course "Out of the Wilderness" is a pretty heavy track, so I think we always have had our feet on the heavier side of music than we have had on the symphonic side. We all like a really good tune, Clive, John and I, and we do try to be always melodic, so we aim to try for the best combination of heavy and melodic. That's ultimately what I love.
SoT: Arena has always had a cast of characters in the band that have been able to do just that. For me personally, since John Mitchell has come into the band, Arena has really hit on a very focused sound, and his guitar tone and technique has really worked well with your drum work and Clive's keyboards, not too mention that his playing really fits well with your songwriting style. Even though you have had a few changes in bass players and singers over the years, the line-up now really seems to be working, and a lot of fans really see that a stable, long lasting band line-up as something that is important these days.
John Mitchell Performing A Long Solo
Mick: Yeah, they do, you are absolutely right. Personally myself I also like to have a stable line-up, but we really didn't go out of our way to have line-up problems in the past (laughs), they just happened, as I'm sure you speak to plenty bands who have had more line-up changes than we have ever had…
SoT: You got that right! (laughs)
Mick: You are right though that the public likes to see a stable line-up, but they have to bear in mind that Arena was started up by Clive and I, and we are the principle writers, so there's always been that constant stability over the last 10 years. I do appreciate though that fans like to see and hear the same artists or musicians on each album.
SoT: Rob Sowden has been with the band now for a few years, and I think he puts in his finest vocal performance on Pepper's Ghost.
Mick: I totally agree with you! Actually, he's been with the band for six years now!
SoT: (laughs) Wow, time is just flying by!
Mick: Yeah! As you know, we had one singer for the first album, then another for four years after that, and back then people really associated Arena with the voice of Paul Wrightson, but in actuality Rob has been with the band a lot longer than Paul was.
SoT: How are things working out with Ian Salmon (bass)?
Mick: Great. You know his association with Clive goes back many years, as they were in Shadowland together, and also knows Karl Groom (Threshold) who runs the studio with Clive, so Ian has been around these guys longer than I have. Ian also did a few things with us when John Jowitt couldn't manage a few gigs for us quite a few years ago.
SoT: So Ian has been part of the Arena family for a long time!
Bassists John Jowitt and Ian Salmon
Mick: Yeah, actually he has! I get on fantastically well with him. Oddly enough saying that, he can't make the four festivals we have lined up for the Spring, and John Jowitt will be stepping in for him.
SoT: Besides for the festivals, are you planning a small tour at all?
Mick: Actually, a very big tour. It's a European tour that starts September 16th and goes to the end of October. I think we cover 15-20 countries on that tour, and I am negotiating now a trip to South America, as well as some other Summer festivals. It's actually looking to be our biggest year for gigging, and in fact Canada is also a possibility.
SoT: I've spoken to so many prog and metal bands over the years about South America, and so many of them have said so many great things about playing down there. Symphonic & heavy acts just seem to go over so well in front of the fans down there.
Mick: Luckily I have been there once before back in 2000, we went to Argentina and Chile, and you are absolutely right, they are incredibly enthusiastic. So few bands actually get down there, which is a pity, and their whole system for album selling and getting bands to play there seems so broken apart. I'm sure it wasn't like that years ago, but these days it seems that their whole system has collapsed, musically anyway.
SoT: I still think the fans get a hold of the music one way or another…
Mick: Downloading probably! (laughs)
SoT: Any other side projects for you guys at the moment? I know John has that Kino thing going on right now.
Mick, Yeah, there's that, and Clive is going to be working with Nick Barrett from Pendragon to do a small tour of Poland, just the two of them. Me, my bum is stuck to the office chair and working on putting the tour for Arena together. I take care of all the office stuff for the band! We manage ourselves and run the Verglas record label, so someone has to do it! (laughs) Generally it's Clive and I, more me I think than him! (laughs)
SoT: Speaking of record labels, how is InsideOut treating you?
Mick: They are fabulous! I've known them all for years and years, and I've had a very long and successful relationship with them. They are great guys and have always been very kind to us, and they always do their utmost to make things happen.
SoT: Do you ever speak to your old mates in Marillion?
Mick: No, I don't. My Marillion days are like another lifetime for me, and I'm not all that interested in what's going on with them quite frankly. I formed Marillion after all, and they were pretty successful and I'm proud of what I achieved while I was with the band.
SoT: Everybody moves on, and they were part of your history and always will be I guess.
Mick: Yeah, they are part of my past, and I'm happy about it, but I've moved on.
SoT: You've accomplished a lot in the past 10-15 years I think.
Mick: To be honest with you, it's been very satisfying with Arena, because we have done everything ourselves. In this climate, with a band like Arena, I mean you can label us metal or progressive rock or whatever, but we have done it all ourselves and made it onto the charts in many countries. To be able to do that twice with two different bands, 20 years apart, is actually my greatest achievement.
SoT: Keep up the good work Mick! I appreciate you taking the time out to speak with us today!
Mick: Take care Peter! Cheers!
Photos courtesy of the Arena Website (http://www.verglas.com/arenaworld)
Duncan Glenday (Sea Of Tranquility)