Interviewed in November, on the eve on their first North American tour, Symphony X's band leader, and guitar virtuoso talks about the new album, life on the road , and his favorite new gear.
By Grant Kikkert
SOT: How does it finally feel to bring your live performance to fans across this country?
MR: It is our first time and we’re pretty psyched about it. We have 6 albums out and we never really toured the states, and never really had anything going on here. It’s pretty exciting and we’re really looking forward to it.
SOT: What is it going to be like touring with Blind Guardian? Are you fans of their music?
MR: Oh yeah, they’re a good band. I think it’s a good package. We’re just going to go and have a good time. We’re the opening act and for us, it’s a good start.
SOT: A couple years back, Symphony X did a mini tour in just a few cities in the states, promoting your 5th album. Are there any cities that you missed on the first round of dates that you are dying to play in?
MR: We didn’t really tour too much, it was only a couple nights here, a couple nights there. We played in New York a couple times, Jersey, Virginia, Chicago, Atlanta…. But it wasn’t really a tour, it was more like we hopped in the van, lugged all the stuff around, and we’d do a show. This is really our first REAL tour. We haven’t really done anything like this before so there are a lot of cities we never played, so it’s all good.
SOT: I was fortunate enough to see you perform twice in 2001. I was very impressed by your tight performances, yet I have to comment on how relaxed you all seemed.
MR: Ahhhh…yea, we’re goofy (onstage)man.
SOT: Is this something you guys think about or talk about? Or do you just go on stage and do it?
MR: We pretty much just do it. Our philosophy is with the album we’re pretty serious about writing the songs, the recording, and the music. But when we’re out playing, we’re all friends and we’re not trying to put on some kind of act. It’s all natural and the way we are at rehearsal is how we are when we’re performing. We like to have fun… and it’s just a relaxed thing for us.
SOT: You definitely enjoy yourselves on stage. That’s evident.
MR: That’s what it’s all about… just having fun. Of course with the songs, there’s definitely some technical things going on, but still, you should still be able to settle in and have a good time. It’s not really a conscious thing. There are a couple bands that it reminds me of… maybe even Zappa might be an example. He was a little over the top and silly at times… but I’d see old tapes of Zappa’s band, and these guys would be playing the most ridiculous stuff on the planet and they’d be cracking jokes in between every note. I thought that was very, very cool.
SOT: What would you say would be the biggest difference in playing for fans in South America & Europe and what you anticipate to play for fans here in the U.S.? You think people will react to you differently?
MR: Well, it’s hard to say. Most of the shows we’d played around here, our friends would come, and people who know us… and they’re really enthusiastic. Over there, it’s the same thing. The fans are really really good in South America, Europe, and even Japan. It is a little different everywhere, but it’s hard to say how people will react. I remember one night we played in Osaka, Japan, and the fans were nuts… and the next night I think we played in Nagoya, and it was kind of weird. It was like the fans wanted to cheer but they were holding back. We were still having fun, and trying to get the fans going, but they just seemed very reserved and quiet. I guess everywhere is different. This is really going to be our first time touring here, so we don’t really know what to expect. But I’m sure it’ll be good.
SOT: I want to steer this over to the new CD. This album is just amazing.
MR: (laughes a little)It’s heavy.
SOT: It’s very heavy. Your guitar tone is chunkier than ever. How much effort was made to make this a much more guitar heavier album than albums in the past?
MR: It was a decision right from the beginning before we even started. We were just coming off the tour from the last album when were got back from Europe and we were talking about what we were going to do. We wanted to get some kind of plan so wouldn’t be meandering with the same thing. We always want to become a little different. The last album was a little polished and that was cool for that album. But for this one we were talking about getting back into our roots with real heavy stuff. The guitars up front… very thick… with some real tough in your face riffs.
SOT: The opening track for instance, "Inferno", is in your face.
MR: That was the plan, right from the very beginning. Then we started working on some of those songs. I think in the beginning, the first couple songs we had were probably "Wicked" and "King of Terror"… those kind of songs. And then we wanted to get some of the orchestral stuff in there with an epic tune and we started looking for the lyric material. We came across "The Odyssey" we thought that would be very cool. We could get that big powerful orchestral Wagner sounding stuff in there. We thought it was a good mix with the real heavy aggressive stuff and still have songs like "The Odyssey" and "The Accolade II" which is normally what we do.
SOT: Actually, The Accolade is one of my favorite Symphony X songs. What was your decision to make a sort of sequel to the song?
MR: It’s a pretty much continuation of the first song. It came about when (Michael) Pinnella and I were hanging out one day talking about how fun it is to take a theme and bring it back later in a song or play it backwards or do some sort of variation to it. We started noodling with the "Accolade" theme and it was like ‘hey… let’s do "Accolade II" and do what we did with the V album and make it continuous.’ So Russ got some lyrics together and brought the story back and we got back in there with the "Accolade" melodies and just went from there. I think it turned out pretty good.
SOT: The last 24 minute track has some moments that are pretty epic. You mentioned in the past that John Williams is a huge influence for you.
MR: All those movie guys… Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams… All that stuff is really good.
SOT: In those terms, are there any new composers that you’ve listened to?
MR: There’s a lot… even the old Hitchcock stuff with Bernhard Herman. Or even just the music for ‘Psycho’… it’s all very, very cool and to do something like that is completely different… just the strings only. There’s all these noises and squeaks. I pretty much like all the big stuff like ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Star Wars’. That really powerful stuff.
SOT: How did you handle the orchestral tracks on The Odyssey?
MR: Well, for the last album we had some keyboards and I would get in there and modify some of the sounds but it would always sound like a keyboard. But after that album, I started to get more into it. I kind of just went nuts in buying big sampling packages with real orchestral sound. This thing I’m using now is called Gigastudio and it’s a sampling program. I totally invested a lot of money into good sampling libraries and orchestral instruments and all kinds of stuff. And it’s really believable if the programming is done good and if you obviously have some kind of knowledge of arranging. You can pull off some pretty ridiculous things. We knew for this album we were going to have some orchestral stuff so I just went nuts with that. And I think the stuff on this new album is pretty good and pretty believable.
SOT: You recorded, mixed and produced this entire album in your basement in your studio. What was it like having full and complete control over recording time, as opposed to having to contract out to a studio?
MR: It wasn’t really too much of a difference because in the past, we did do a lot of the tracking at the house in the studio at my place. But we would mix it at another place and do the drums & rhythm track somewhere else. It was a little bit here and a little bit there. But the biggest difference is that we could record whenever we wanted to… we never had to worry about looking at the clock. Russ would camp out here for 2 weeks while we were doing this, and if he got up at 4am and we felt like working on a song, we could do it. We never had to worry about any kind of time schedule. It was much more relaxed. We could work all day and if we wanted a break, we wouldn’t have to worry about it. We could go watch a movie or just hang out or do whatever.
SOT: What was your favorite distraction while recording… Video games? Movies?
MR: Yeah ya know, whatever. We have games… we have movies. Or we’d even just come outside to the backyard. It was just a very relaxed atmosphere. We were working really hard but we also weren’t looking at the clock and worrying that we had to finish by a certain time. We definitely had to invest a little money into our studio to bring it up to date, but I think that way of working is a lot more comfortable. If we don’t like something, we could do it over or change it on the spot. It was just a good, relaxed environment to work in.
SOT: Speaking of your studio that you built yourself, what input did you have from the outside in getting the recording tools involved. Did you use Pro-Tools, or did you do more of analog type of recording, or was it more digital?
MR: It was all pretty much digital. Over the years, we’ve used a lot of different things. In the beginning on the first album, I think we used a 16-track reel to reel analog. Then around the Devine album, we invested in the Tascam 888 and used that for a while. On this album we were going to use Pro-Tools, but to get the full blown software package, it was a little out of our price range. We went with the Steinberg Nuendo and we have a pretty slammin’ computer to take care of all the processing. And we still have the 888’s if we need them. We have plenty of stuff to do what we need to do. It’s not a whole lot of stuff, but it’s pretty much what we need.
SOT: Quick question about gear…. What did you use to record the album and what will you use to tour with?
MR: For the album, I used a couple different amps. I used a Dual Rectifier and I had Engle amp. Most of the rhythm was done with that. And I still had the Line 6 that I used that for some parts…even some different amp sounds…. Like parts where I needed a semi-dirty sound or a clean-electric sound. It was pretty that… the Rectifier, the Engle, and the Line 6 for the album. For live, I was using the POD for the last year or two. It’s cool that it has all the different sounds you can use, but I think the heavier sounds weren’t quite what a Rectifier would do.
SOT: It doesn’t throw 'air'?
MR: Yeah. You feel it doesn’t really pump. Some nights it would sound really good, and some nights it would sound really thin. I guess it all had to do with where we were playing and the mic setup and all that stuff. With any amp, I guess that’s going to happen.
SOT: Right… the dynamics of the room would affect it.
MR: After hearing the album and using the Engle, the things that I don’t like about all those amps is that you have your clean settings and your distorted settings and for us there’s always a million changes. I need this kind of tone for this, and that kind of tone for that… and with the Line 6, I would have like 8 different sounds for the songs we were doing. Then I didn’t really know what to do… I didn’t want to bring 6 amps out with me, that’s just ridiculous. Then someone told me about the Line 6 Vetta Head. I went…. tried it out….and bought it on the spot. I was a little overwhelmed when I brought it home. It’s not just one amp, you can put two on top of each other… and it can get out of control. You can feel that pump… that air coming out of the speakers. And it has all the switching. For me, that’s just as important. We have to go from clean to ‘this sound’ to distorted to ‘that sound’. And it sounds pretty damn good.
SOT: You have been the principle song writers for years, and Michael has helped with melodies and musical ideas as well…. What are the other 3 members contributions when you’re getting ideas on the table and you’re actually constructing the songs?
MR: Everyone helps out in different ways. This album has a lot of guitar so I spent a lot of time by myself just trying to get some heavy riffs. And then the rest of us would get together and go over a couple parts, and maybe make some changes. Everyone pretty much contributes to the lyrics of songs. Russ had a lot of stuff for this album, but sometimes Jason or LePond would offer some suggestions or help out. Everybody at different points has different inputs. It all works really good. Me and Pinnella may get a basic song idea together down in the studio, and then we’d get together with the rest and go over it making some changes. Russ would add some lyrics. Then we all contribute to the lyrics if we have to. It all seems to come together.
SOT: Obviously, you’ve have some slight line-up changes over the years, but the chemistry you have with all five members right now is evident in the music.
MR: Yeah, everyone was pretty much on the same page for this album. As soon as we started talking about doing some heavier stuff, everyone said ‘yeah let’s do that’… We didn’t want to do another concept album, we wanted something a little more aggressive. At the same time, we didn’t want to lose what we normally do, so we got "The Odyssey" and "Accolade" tracks on there. Everything fell into place pretty nicely.
SOT: This is personal question… how much of a role has your immediate friends and family played in supporting your career?
MR: They have been pretty good…. Especially my wife… the kids. When I’m downstairs, they know I’m working. They’re very cool about it. When you first start out when you’re younger, your parents are like ‘What are doing? When are ya going to cut your hair and get a job?!’ You know… all that. And I definitely heard it all. My Dad was a principal of a school so I got the extra lecturing. But the parents are a little more understanding as time goes on and they see the band is doing some good stuff and realize it’s for real. And like I said, my wife is very cool about the whole thing. So yes, your friends and family are hopefully cool with everything.
SOT: An extention of that question…. Symphony X is very respected and some may say a leader in this type of musical genre which is kind of a new and improved classical prog-metal. But I have to ask you… what’s it like living in New Jersey, the home of pop rock icons Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi?
MR: (laughs) Oh man! Ahhhhhh…… you know whatever. We don’t even think about that stuff. In the past, it might have maybe bothered us a little bit. We thought we were a pretty good band and we had some success overseas… and then here in our home country no one knew what was going on. (Chuckle) We didn’t see our album in any record stores… all that kind of stuff. The first couple years we were a little bummed out. But you know what… we’re like ‘hey, whatever… if it does good wherever, we’re happy’. We don’t even think about that stuff. We just try to do some good tunes and whatever we had to do as far as touring. And whatever happens here… that’s cool. We really don’t think about it.
SOT: I’m sure things have improved in the U.S. record sales. You can actually buy your album now in Tower Records.
MR: Yeah, I think now it’s going to be a little different. A lot of the press from the states on the new album have been really behind it. That’s a good thing. And I think it’s a good album for here (the US). It’s heavy and it just has some good songs with some good melodies. I think when most people hear it, there’s usually something that they find that they like about it. So yeah…. we’re just going with the flow. Whatever happens, we’re cool with it.
SOT: Symphony X has really taken neo-classical metal to new heights. And because of that, there are a lot of bands out there that sound very similar to Symphony X.
MR: Yeah I know, I get a lot of people sending me CD’s.
SOT: How do you feel about that?
MR: I think it’s definitely cool. As long as the other bands are taking what we did and doing something different… and there’s not a lot of exactly the same stuff. I know with Dream Theater, there were a lot bands sounding like them. It sounded like that was all they listened to. As long as they take a little bit of everything and make something original and that’s what they really want to do, then it’s cool. I think with this kind of music, it’s probably what someone would want to do. It isn’t about money. You have all the grunge bands and then the 300 bands after that all sounding the same, and they’re all trying to get on the money train. For that, I’m not into. But our music is a little different, it’s not about that. You have to like this kind of style… it’s not the most popular music in the world.
SOT: Are there any bands over the last few years that really stand out in your mind that you say ‘wow, these guys are really doing something different’ or you like their style?
MR: Honestly, I haven’t really heard too much stuff… especially when we’re writing. We get weird… we just lock ourselves away and we don’t know what month it is half the time. For me, the only albums I think I bought this year were the new Rush, the new Dream Theater, and the new King Diamond. It’s all good stuff. But once we start writing, we disappear for a while.
SOT: Lastly, do you have anything you’d like to promote or any message you want to give to the fans?
MR: For the fans that we had, we want thank them for all the support over the years. And to the new fans with the new album, we just hope that they like what we’re doing and they like the songs. We definitely put a lot into this album and we definitely had a lot of fun. I hope that comes across… the energy. I hope the good time that we had making it translates through the album. I hope everyone enjoys the album and we look forward to seeing everyone when we start touring.