After the release of their critically acclaimed self-titled album back in 2000 and subsequent strong appearance at the 2001 NEARfest Festival, California's Under the Sun faded from the prog rock spotlight for a few years while they went through some member changes and more than a few growing pains. While the band is currently revitalizing themselves after the release of Schematism: On Stage With Under the Sun, a live document released on ProgRock Records of their set from NEARfest back in 2001, they are also hard at work at completing their long-anticipated second album. Sea of Tranquility Publisher Pete Pardo caught up with guitarist/singer Chris Shryack and bassist Kurt Barabas to discuss all the latest happenings with Under the Sun.
Read on the for full interview!
Sea of Tranquility: You guys excited about the release of the live CD?
Chris Shryack: Oh yeah! This a great re-instatement of the band, and it appears to have been a catalyst for getting some substantial energy behind Under the Sun again.
SoT: Why don't you take us from when last we spoke, oh, I guess almost 2 years ago, to where the band is today?
Chris: Well, when we last spoke, Kurt and I, along with drummer Jim Hardiman, were doing some drum recording in Hollywood and tracking everything else at The Aquarium in Chatsworth, following our usual recording method. And things were OK.
But as time progressed and we continued to record it became apparent that something was not quite happening. Something wasn't right about the chemistry of the three of us. Kurt sensed it more than anything – I was okay with the way things were, and believed that any underlying oddness would smooth out as the recording came to fruition. But Kurt eventually didn't want to move ahead as it was – he'd had enough of that "nagging feeling" that something needed to change.
It was tough. It was hard to define and hard to put our finger on. Kurt is really sensitive to a lot of different energies, and I may have more of a bull-headed approach like "let's just plow through regardless of the immediate vibe, things will work out in the end", but Kurt eventually pulled me aside and said, "You know, something's wrong", so we basically just stopped and took a little time to reconvene. Eventually it seemed that indeed another personnel change needed to be made.
Kurt Barabas, Chris Shryack, and Paul Shkut at NEARfest 2001
So, we just kind of took a hiatus and let the recording sit. Each of us – meaning Kurt, Jim and myself – were kind of dealing with a tough time on our own individually anyway, so it didn't come at a bad time in that regard. Though at the time I was upset about another delay. But it proved out to be more than necessary, and in the end way more beneficial to the spirit of the group and the material itself than just barnstorming ahead. Though certainly the approach of "barnstorming ahead" usually is the best plan of attack in these kinds of situations in my experience…
But in this case Kurt was right to demand we pause and get away from it for awhile. In the end it proved to be just another transitional upheaval, something it appears this band has learned to endure! Next thing you know Kurt was back in contact with Paul (original drummer) over this live album. They'd kept in touch over the years anyway.
At some point last year during the time we were recording the new studio stuff, Kurt pulled me aside and said, "You know, we have these NEARfest tapes that we should take a listen to", so we sat down one afternoon over coffee and listened to the whole thing and decided to take a stab at it. I was a little begrudging about working on it because my mind was completely wrapped up in the new material – I hadn't even HEARD the older stuff in quite awhile. I truthfully wasn't real interested in working on a live disc from material four years prior.
At that point it'd been a really fucking long time since our first disc, the NEARfest show, all that. But Kurt was persuasive. The timing felt off to me cause I'd consciously moved far away from that era of the band in my mind's eye so as to remain as open to new influences as possible in regard to recording the new material. All the while keeping an eye on maintaining the vision and some conceptual motifs of the former material that we'd discussed and agreed we'd like to have carry over into the new incarnation.
Anyway, while we were preparing the original live NEARfest master tapes for transfer from DA-88 to the Otari Radar System I said to Kurt "I'm afraid if you listen to this you're going to become re-attached to the band as it was then", as we were at our peak in 2001. When we played NEARfest we were at the end of that 5-year cycle and we were at the top of our game.
Here Kurt, Jim and I are trying to create something new and different and there's always that uncertainty when you are trying to break new ground for yourselves, every day you have to wake up and listen through stuff in which the validity of the ideas may or may not be as readily apparent or reflect the amount of work put in. And Kurt wanted to go back and ensconce ourselves into the world of our former incarnation in which we'd worked out the bugs in our music and recorded it and toured on it. I was kind of concerned that he'd get bummed-out and feel that what we were doing currently wasn't at the level of the former incarnation. Of course, sure enough when we did sit down and start preparing the NEARfest tracks for mixdown it wasn't Kurt that had that impression it was me! (laughs)
SoT: (laughs) Surprise, surprise!
Chris: Yeah! (laughs) So I remember sitting back and saying, "Damn, we were really ON at NEARfest"…Nonetheless, I still felt that if we pressed on we could finish the new studio album and its strength would be apparent as different but equally strong as the first disc. But Kurt felt differently. He didn't want to continue as we were.
Jim is a really fine drummer, an excellent drummer, and he put a lot of hard work into what we were doing. We had a pretty good run and we wrote some interesting material together, but I think at the end of the day, at least in the type of material that we tend to gravitate towards, he may play with a little more of an eclectic feel than is necessary at times… it's hard to explain. I don't mean that in a bad way, and in fact I embraced that aspect of his style, what I perceived as more of an eclectic, more feel-oriented style, less about impact and more about finding niches in the music in which to let things breathe.
But, again, my opinion wasn't shared by everyone around me, and also there were other problems that had loomed apparent so at the end of the day I just decided to graciously go with whatever changes Kurt wanted to implement. Kurt had taken a leap of faith a couple of years prior about some changes I'd wanted to make in the band and he had gone with them… Some of them worked out and some didn't, so I felt I kind of owed him here. Kurt and I started this thing together years ago and my allegiance first and foremost is to him. As much as possible, as long as we're working together, I want my old musical partner-in-crime to be happy. If he's happy, I'm happy!!!
Jim and I have known one another forever and remain friends and I hope to work with him in the future. I think eventually it was even verbally agreed between the three of us that Jim would probably be happier doing something else. Deep down, I think Kurt was very interested in getting Paul back in the band. Paul and Kurt have an undeniable chemistry and work well together. I know he missed it. And I did, too. And I think Jim understood at the end of the day. We had some good times with Jim but it was time to say goodbye to the way things were and get into something fresh. For all of us. Even though I was pissed at the timing of it all! I wanted to finish the album first. But that's life. Sometimes you get hit with realizations and changes that in essence feel like you've been bitch-slapped by God and all you can do is roll with the punches. In that regard, this was a minor blip on life's radar screen. Lord knows, band problems pale in comparison to truly devastating life tragedies. Obviously.
So, yeah, after we completed the process of putting together the live album and after we gave it to Brad Aaron to have it mixed, Kurt got back in contact with Paul and they met up a couple times, including once with Brad to discuss the business end of things, so everything went in that direction.
SoT: So is Paul recording his drum tracks for the next album?
Chris: Paul has agreed to play drums on this new studio release. He's also been working with Kurt for K&N Engineering doing some voice-over work and Kurt and I continue to write music spots for them, in addition to Under The Sun music, of course.
SoT: So, is Paul officially back in the band now?
Chris: You know, in every real way Schematism finally closed the chapter to the older version of the group, while at the same time getting us back in touch with Paul. And we're hopeful about his reinvolvement… The agreement is to have him help us finish this new studio disc, and we're also in serious discussions with Shawn Gordon from Progrock Records about doing both an East coast and European tour with K2, and Paul has agreed to help us with that as well. It's still a little early to say "yes" definitively regarding Paul's involvement but all signs seem to be pointing to the positive in that regard. Personally, I'd love nothing more than work with Paul and Kurt again in a new incarnation of UTS. I think everyone's grown up quite a bit, and I think we all respect one another's talents a lot more than we may have then. I'd personally love to play with Paul again, bottom line. We'll see how things go. Fingers crossed!
SoT: Kurt, how do you feel about having Paul back?
Kurt: Well, I couldn't be happier! I couldn't be happier. It was a tough time after we got back from that tour, and I think we all just needed a little time off; I think that was the main thing. Over the past couple of years Paul and I always stayed in touch and always stayed great friends. We talked about working on things in the future, not necessarily Under The Sun at the time, more like any musical project. The timing got right, and it was really cool because of the NEARfest project, I called him up and asked him how he felt about things, and he said "great, let's go!"
SoT: How about Matt Evidon? (keyboard player)
Chris: I haven't spoken to Matt in years. I think Kurt and Matt have spoken a few times, via e-mail more than anything. But, no, there's no talk at the moment of approaching him about re-joining . Having said that, I miss the dude and his sense of humor. I wish him the best.
SoT: So for the time being you are going to continue to move forward with the trio format of guitars, bass, and drums? No keyboards?
Chris: Yeah. No keys! It's not that we don't like keyboards -- we love them actually -- it's just that we are very into trying to create as cohesive a band spirit as possible and that mindset takes precedence over a lot of things. We didn't want to get a guy we don't really know that well into the fold just to have a keyboard presence, and we've never been big fans of hiring on additional musicians just to have that particular instrument in the mix. I'm a bigger fan of bands using the limitations of what is within their framework and creating the most honest expression they can, given that time, given that incarnation, and I think Kurt agrees. Jerry Garcia once said, "Limitations create style". It's so true, and so much more honest when you approach making an album like that. At least a rock album made by a band.
We've never been into the whole "auxiliary musician" thing. At least not on a studio CD. Occasional guest appearances by really talented players are cool, however… So, yeah, no extra musicians on a recording. Though, working with additional players live periodically may be an option. We'll see. Meanwhile, until we meet a talented keyboardist who just gels with the music -- and it's undeniable that there are some compatible energies and some chemistry with the guys in the band – we'll probably just continue on as a trio.
Whenever I think of an example of the "auxiliary musician" scenario, I think of Pink Floyd's Momentary Lapse Of Reason. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely love that album, but the list of credits makes your eyes cross. There's so many friggin' musicians on that thing. Why? Based on their older albums it certainly doesn't seem necessary. But, then again, I wasn't around for the production of the album. Maybe all those hired guns were necessary. But, somehow, I doubt it. I would rather have heard Gilmour, Mason and Wright work with one or two other people as a core band. Bring in the bass player, the sax and background singers. And live with the limitations.
Anyway, back to UTS being a guitar-based band for now -- a satisfying aspect of working with a guitars-only approach is that in the studio it enables me to work hard at filling in some of those harmonic, melodic and pastoral layers that the keyboards would have filled with guitar and my voice, and as a result it helps me stretch my abilities a bit. An example of this would be I would lay down guitar tracks that were a little more traditional, and then I would set aside a day or two to lay down guitars with a keyboard "thinking cap" on as opposed to a traditional guitarist's mindset. A lot of that less-overt stuff ends up being the material I'm most proud of. So the result, even though this album is working out to be pretty heavy, probably a lot heavier than the first album in some regards -- seeing as it's all guitars! – the result is that when the guitar & vocal layers come in, to me when I hear all the subtleties, even though it may not be as apparent in the final mix, some of that stuff to my ears has more emotion than if I just attempted to cut some kind of ripping guitar solo.
As much as I love to perform, I love recording. And I trust we'll finish this second disc before we're eighty. But we're still working on pulling everything back together. Everybody has a plan to get together and get back into the room playing and writing, and also review the former recorded material we did with Jim. Reconvene and bring everything into the fold and reshape the second album. The second album had a script initially that we were all focused on -- between Jim, Kurt and I -- and that script still exists and a lot of that material is all still there, so what we will do is sit down and listen to all that and see what everyone has written since. The idea is still to follow that script and finish up this album as close to the original concept as possible.
SoT: That sounds like a good plan…
SoT: So you are looking at maybe getting this all finalized by maybe year's end?
Chris: Yeah, I would like that, I mean, at least the live album is out there. You know, I was thinking about this today in anticipation of talking to you, and this band certainly doesn't suffer from too prolific an output, however at least the two records that are out are of very high quality. The first album was a 100% honest and uncompromised vision, and so is Schematism.
Regarding the debut Magna Carta release, we are grateful that we had a chance to work with Terry Brown, and even the packaging was high-quality and lush. The Magna Carta release is a very strong statement. The second CD, the live "re-presentation" of most of that material, is equally strong in all the same ways, and it's also a definitive live snapshot of that incarnation of the group, plus Brad Aaron did an tremendous job mixing it… It just sounds incredible.
SoT: You've had an opportunity to work with Terry Brown and now Brad Aaron, two heavyweights of the industry. Tell us how you hooked up with Brad?
Kurt Barabas and Chris Shryack
Chris: The connection with Brad Aaron originated through our association with Kansas back when we were signed with Magna Carta. In addition to some select new stuff, Kurt and I, still to this day, are influenced by Steve Hackett, Genesis, Kansas, and a number of other groups of similar ilk, so when Kansas would come through town we would take a break and drive out to Vegas or wherever to see them play, and a couple of times we cornered Rich Williams in the bar and had a great time hanging out and getting to know him a little bit. We always had a great time, he was real gracious. We'd get a little crazy.
Then we signed with Magna Carta, and Kansas did as well shortly afterwards, so the next time we saw Rich we said, "Hey, remember us?" and he said, "Yeah, I remember you guys!", and we said "We have a new record out alongside your new disc, on the same label!" and he said "You guys???" It was pretty funny. We have been friends ever since. Robby, too. All the guys in Kansas, they have been very gracious to us. What a phenomenal rock ensemble. We'd see them if we could whenever they'd roll through town. Also, we got to know Robby Steinhardt's personal manager at the time, Nick Fa Kouri, and we spent a little time getting to know him as well and we discussed him managing the group.
Ultimately, it didn't work out with Nick but over that whole period of time as we were getting to know some of the guys in the Kansas camp we met Brad Aaron a couple of times as he had just finished the mix on "Somewhere to Elsewhere". I believe it was through Nick, but I can't be sure. I don't quite remember. Anyway, everybody was becoming friends, and Brad and Kurt kept in touch. So when it came time for the live album, we got back in touch with Brad and he took it on, largely as a favor and largely as a labor of love of the music we were doing, which is a hell of a compliment, obviously. The connection with Kerry Livgren, who provided an original print for the cover of Schematism was through Brad, by the way.
Original Print of Schematism By Kerry Livgren
SoT: Kurt, I know you had a blast working with Brad - can you talk a little about the whole experience?
Kurt: Well, as Chris explained, originally we received the tapes from the people who recorded the NEARfest event, and it was recorded on three Tascam DA88's (they are 8 track recorders slaved together), with 24 tracks. When we finally got the stuff back, Chris and I brought it all over to my studio and we transferred the tapes on to my recording system, which is an Otari Radar 2, and noticed that in the beginning of the set my bass track was gone until the first vocal in "Tracer"…there was absolutely no bass on it. So, they obviously didn't have the mic turned on or something, I mean you could hear it through the house PA in the background, so I had to re-mic my rig and played my part over it, so that worked out OK. One of the challenges that Brad had was that some of the audience microphones were out of phase with each other, so he had to correct the phase problem, which is kind of a tricky thing but he's so good… (laughs)
SoT: He's had a lot of experience doing that sort of thing. (laughs)
Kurt: He sure has! Brad has been a real mentor to me as far as engineering stuff goes - I'm good at a lot of this sort of thing, but nowhere near what he can do!
SoT: So you're like a recording engineer in training? (laughs)
Kurt: Yeah, something like that! (laughs) The mix itself was really cool the way it was set up-Brad mixed it at his place in ProTools, not sure which system he was running, but his place is so wild. He's just the classic audiophile guy, where you go into his place and literally he has gear on all the walls from top to bottom. Tons of vintage things, all the good stuff like analog pre-amps and compressors and stuff like that, which he even uses to get that extra warmth even when using ProTools. He would mix things, and I would go over to his place and we'd discuss them. Brad was very accommodating and always asking for input from us, giving us different options, always very professional. One cool thing that happened was when we were standing in his studio, the way the monitors are set up, it's like the cone of perfection, the audio quality is so unbelievable. I was listening to one of the first mixes, and I was standing in front of and facing the speakers and said "wow", this is really a trip, and then turned around with my back facing the speakers as if I was facing the audience, and it sounded just like how it sounded on stage. I think that was what triggered him into thinking of mixing it as if we were standing on stage, which he ran with.
SoT: That's really a different concept.
The Staging Setup
Kurt: You know, the thing that's really great about it is it's a headphone thing. It's been a long time since I thought about listening to a record strictly on headphones, like you would with a Pink Floyd record or something.
SoT: Kind of what that music was made for.
Kurt: Exactly. It was a great learning experience for me, as there are so many different ways you can mix things. There are moments on this live CD that sound just like moments from the studio record.
SoT: It's great now to have a recorded version of "Souljourner".
Kurt: Oh yes! That was a song that was new to us, and I think we maybe played that song for the first time on that tour at that NEARfest show.
SoT: That song is still going to be on the new studio album correct?
Kurt: Yes. Same arrangement, but the only thing that is different is it has some of the coolest guitar parts that Chris has ever played, just layers and layers of guitar overdubs to simulate keyboards, seeing as we are now without a keyboard player. He really orchestrated it well, and I think the studio version is superior to the live version. That's a personal taste thing. I know we'd all like to have keys on things in the future if that's possible. The right guy at the right time shows up, great.
SoT: How come you guys didn't call the CD "Live at NEARfest"?
Chris: Well, the original working title was "The Melodic Thunder Of Kurt Barabas" but we decided not to use it because there was already a famous release with the same title by a virtuoso Scandanavian bazooka player named Kurt Barabas. We didn't want people to get confused.
It's Brad's title and Brad's mix concept for the album. Up til then the original working title was always "NEARfest Live" or something similar to that.
Brad's knowledge of mixing is so deep -- and I mean deep as in "profoundly involved" -- he hears things few have the aptitude to recognize, in a professional capacity or otherwise. Once he had the new mix concept for the album then he worked it out so that the actual album is a reflection of being on stage with the band, and once that occurred the whole concept evolved.
He then sent out a request to find a name for the album that reflected the mix, one of unity, a single word that was redolent of the all-enveloping feel of the stage mix. I couldn't find anything I liked, and Kurt couldn't. Eventually, Brad himself happened upon the word "Schematism", which means literally "the patterned disposition of constituents within a given system" so he titled the CD "Schematism-On Stage with Under the Sun".
SoT: That kind of makes sense -- it's more than just "Live at NEARfest".
Chris: Yeah. Truth is, Brad could have called the album anything he wanted at that point, and Kurt & I would have been cool with it. Because he put so much work into that mix, you have no idea. Truly above and beyond the call of duty. We are so grateful to have had him channel our music in such a powerful fashion. I hope we work with him again.
SoT: Was there ever any thought to releasing this live album as a NEARfest Records release? They have a series of official NEARfest CD's that they have released.
NEARfest 2001 Logo
Kurt: No, I had no idea that they were even doing that.
Chris: I didn't either. It wasn't until after we negotiated with Progrock that we learned there even WAS a NEARfest Records. That's okay – working with Shawn & Progrock is working out well so far and Schematism is a definitive document for us. It's highly doubtful anything else truly substantial will ever rear its head in the future from that line-up as far as professionally-recorded live gigs go. We were a well-rehearsed vehicle at that time.
SoT: Well, you can tell! I was sitting there in the audience!
Chris: We played quite a few shows during the time we were together.
SoT: I guess living on the East Coast contributed to my missing out on that!
Chris: Certainly wasn't your fault, we didn't get out to the East Coast much, most of our gigs were here on the West Coast. The only time we ever made it to the East Coast was when we toured around the country in support of the NEARfest show, which turned out to be one of the very last gigs we did with that line-up. The Troubador gig we did with Spock's Beard a couple of weeks after NEARfest on August 1st, 2001 was the last with the original line-up. Given all our problems there at the end, that show was another highlight, and I'm proud of all of us that we pulled it together long enough to go out with a solid show.
SoT: You guys were firing on all cylinders at that point…
Chris: Yeah, we really were. When I listen to Schematism, that's what I hear. I hear a band that was kicking ass. It's a shame it didn't last longer but it wasn't meant to be. Such is life. Here's to hoping this next year brings us closer to rekindling the spark.
SoT: How many songs are going to be on the upcoming CD?
Kurt: It's probably going to come in the same length as the first record. I believe there are six songs. "Souljourner" is about 10 minutes, and a song Chris wrote called "Songlight" is about 18 minutes. We've redone the basics for the backlog of material for this one, but now we have new ones we have written, so we have to get this album out or we are going to be changing the songs again! (laughs)
SoT: Either that or release a double CD! (laughs)
Kurt: Yeah, there you go! Paul's in the process of learning the tunes, and we don't have a target date scheduled for the recording of the drums yet, but it will probably be a few months. Possibly a late 2005 or early 2006 release if all goes well.
Chris: Plus we're in discussions with Progrock about touring. There's a lot going on.
SoT: Looking forward to it! Best of luck to the three of you, and let's speak again when the new record is out.
Kurt: Sounds good!
Chris: Sure thing, Pete! And thanks again for your support over the years…
Photos & images courtesy of Under The Sun and Kira Smith copyright 2005