Vangough is probably the best Progressive Metal band you'll discover in 2009. They just released their debut album Manikin Parade recently, which recalls the finest moments on Pain of Salvation's Remedy Lane, Evergrey's Recreation Day, and some great Progressive Rock in the vein of The Flower Kings and Transatlantic. Sea of Tranquility staff writer Murat Batmaz talked to members of the band about their history, the making of the new CD, and progressive music in general.
SoT: Congratulations on your great debut album.
Clay: Thanks man. We're glad people are digging it.
Lopez: Thank you!
SoT: Tell us a bit about the band. When and was Vangough formed?
Clay: I formed Vangough in late 2007 when we began recording the drums for the album that would be Manikin Parade. I was trying out a couple of different players around the city until I ran into Lopez at Guitar Center. I don't know what magic spell I cast on him but he agreed to record the drums. I don't think he quite knew what was in store for him! Haha.
Abe: They found me in a bar playing 80s cover songs.
Lopez: I just love being in the studio, so I figured what the heck. I'd give it a shot and see how it sounds.
SoT: What about the band members? How long have you known each other? How old are you guys? Do any of you have any musical education?
Clay: I'm 27 and my musical education mainly consisted of listening to videogame music growing up. I would tape record music from my favorite games, like Street Fighter II for example, and then listen to it in the car over and over. Eventually I discovered prog music when I got to college and that seemed to match what I loved about videogame music -- the melody, the odd transitions. I was also really into stuff like Lionel Ritchie and Michael Jackson growing up, which I still love today, as well as movie music like James Horner's Aliens score. I met Lopez in 2007 and have been good friends ever since.
Lopez: A couple years -- a year and a half. I'm 29. Self-taught and learned a lot of what not to do from local music store show-offs. You know, the guys that go into the music stores and wreak havoc.
Clay: Like Garth from Wayne's World?
Abe: I studied at the University of Oklahoma with an education degree. I decided that I wanted to be a rock star instead. And I met up with Clay years back when we both played in a rock band together. We were really into the same style of music so it worked out perfect.
Carlton: Yeah. I'm getting my violin performance degree at OCU (Oklahoma City University) and play in the orchestra here. I met up with Clay through a friend after a performance and he immediately asked if I'd be interested.
Clay: He was playing the double bass in the OCU philharmonic- absolutely awesome stuff. Afterwards I asked him what he wanted to do and he said he wanted to be a rock star. It was a bonus that he played the violin, viola, bassoon, and piano as well!
SoT: Did you use to play in different bands before Vangough?
Clay: I played in my own band to support my solo release before this and a thrash metal band before that.
Abe: I played in the Kill Ray before and currently play with an 80s cover band.
Lopez: Yeah, I'm also currently in Broken Flesh, a death metal band in Oklahoma. Also toured and recorded with Becoming the Archetype for their album Dichotomy.
Carlton: Dedicated Voices, Voices of Faith, Christopher Ray Quartet.
SoT: Your debut album, Manikin Parade, came out only recently. How has the reaction been so far?
Clay: The reaction has been pretty unanimously positive, which is a huge relief! I wasn't exactly thinking ahead about how people would receive it back when we were recording, so getting such positive feedback is more than we could have asked for.
Lopez: I've got a lot of positive feedback from friends as well.
SoT: Have you done much press work? Are you pleased with the feedback and reviews you've received?
Click here to view Murat's review of Manikin Parade
Clay: We did a little press work leading up to the release. We had a couple of contacts from when we released Dissonance Rising that I sent copies to. But as far as the reviews? Great so far! I remember my jaw dropped as I read the ProgArchives review. I was in disbelief for a while!
SoT: Clay, undoubtedly your vocal style will remind many a fan of Daniel Gildenlow? What do you think?
Clay: Hmmm. Where I live no one has even heard of Pain of Salvation or even of Dream Theater, so it's funny to finally be asked about that! Daniel is definitely one of my greatest vocal inspirations -- the way he emotes spoken lines and shifts his singing in dramatic ways. I love that about him. And if people are reminded of Daniel in my singing then I feel that is one of the great compliments I could achieve!
SoT: Your CD has been described as a mix between Pain of Salvation, Evergrey, and The Flower Kings? Do you think this is an apt description?
Clay: Well, I have to admit during the recording of Manikin I was heavily, HEAVILY listening to TFK's new album The Sum of No Evil, which I believe is one of their best so far. And then I was still kind of digesting Scarsick from PoS, which wasn't their strongest release but still had some interesting ideas. So, yeah, I definitely think that's an apt description for this album.
SoT: What are the band's biggest influences and why?
Lopez: I always want my playing to speak to people. And I'm fortunate to have the chance to share my God-given talent.
Abe: Musicals and drugs.
Carlton: Gospel, jazz, bluegrass. Rap, rock...pretty much everything. I take a little from everything. I like movie score arrangements, old school classical stuff.
Clay: Life and probably videogames. Nature. Animals.
SoT: Could you talk a little about the songwriting process of Manikin Parade? How long did it take? Did you write it together or mostly online exchanging ideas?
Clay: I actually wrote most of the music during the Spring of 2007 but I started recording the scratch guitars later that summer, in between sessions of Pilotwings 64 and Mortal Kombat Trilogy. Then I cast my spell on Lopez to come in and lay some drums in during the fall. The album was completely written by myself, save for the drum parts, which Lopez came up with normally on the first couple of takes. We recruited Abe that December, well after I had written most of the keyboard parts.
Lopez: When I came in the music had a lot of vibe. So I was able to just put on headphones and just go with the flow. And the meter was so crazy that I ended up playing something simple to get through it, which worked out well for the album.
SoT: Manikin Parade is a self-released debut. Was that your intention from the start or were negotiations not to your liking?
Clay: That was the intention from the start. I never contacted anyone nor did I attempt to contact someone, except for Roine Stolt who was actually going to mix the album. But given his location it would have been difficult to communicate via email and I wanted to be there during the mixdown so we went with Sterling in Texas. I would love to work with Roine in the future though. He's absolutely one of my favorite musicians.
SoT: Your CD contains no lyrics. Is that for aesthetic purposes or because including a booklet would have been too costly?
Clay: Well, we weren't quite sure how well the CD would do so we played it safe and went with no booklet. But what I can tell you now is that a reissue is coming, complete with new artwork and the full book.
SoT: What do the songs on Manikin Parade deal with lyrically? Is there a concept behind them or are they all independent of each other?
Clay: There is a concept but I'm hoping your listeners can pick it apart. When I tried explaining the concept behind Dissonance Rising it sounded like a convoluted Russian novel! So I streamlined the concept this time, and I think it's far more effective.
SoT: What is "The Twilight Trilogy about"? Part three recalls Evergrey circa Recreation Day to these ears. Were you guys influenced by them?
Clay: The Twilight is a journey or trial of challenges the main character faces on his way to Oblivion. Imagine an intellectual character constantly asking questions and being critical of popular assumptions. I actually wrote Etude of Sorrow way before Dissonance Rising the album even came out. It was sitting around for a while with no home and it just so happened to fit on this album and at the same time provide the musical theme for the story. Vocally there might be a little Evergrey in there, yeah. I just love the raspy quality of Tom's vocals. But I definitely don't have that sound- my voice is far too clean. Maybe I need to start on the whiskey and cigarette diet?
SoT: Tell us a bit about the dark ballad "One Dark Birthday" please. It sounds like something Daniel Gildenlow would sing on a Flower Kings album.
Clay: I love this song. It's my favorite one on the album because it's so personal -- the only personal song on the CD maybe. I had that melody sitting around from an unreleased song on Dissonance Rising and decided to use it here. I love how it's mainly held together by bass and drums, which sounds very powerful to me. Interesting thing -- when I first laid in the guitar solo on "Birthday" it moved my friend to tears who was sitting in on the recording session that day.
SoT: Are you satisfied with the album from a production standpoint? You [Clay Withrow] produced and engineered it yourself.
Clay: After all the feedback we received I am definitely satisfied. Of course there is always room for improvement and I'm constantly learning new things in the recording studio just by observing others. But what I've learned is to trust my ear (ears?).
Lopez: Definitely. The explosiveness of the bass and kick are killer.
SoT: You guys are from Oklahoma. How is the prog scene over there? Recommend our readers some obscure and fantastic bands like Vangough please.
Clay: I can tell you there is no prog scene in Oklahoma, except for us. But Brandon can probably recommend some pretty good bands since he actually gets out and socializes.
Lopez: Memory Driven is a prog band in Oklahoma I like.
Abe: What prog scene?
SoT: What was your and the band's favourite (prog) releases of the last three years?
Clay: The Flower King's Sum of No Evil -- absolutely brilliant. In my opinion their best work.
Abe: Hm. Can't think of anything.
Carlton: BYOB from System of a Down is a great song. And Dragon Force are really impressive.
Lopez: Suffocation's self-titled release and Sevendust's "Alpha".
SoT: What do you think of the following bands?
Clay: Never could get into them. I guess I haven't stumbled across that song that really grabbed my attention yet.
Lopez: I dig the vibe and respect them musically.
SoT: Dream Theater…
Clay: They are kind of the like an institution for prog. Their recent stuff is so amazing and still so inspired. I absolutely admire each of the members in that band and hope they just keep making wonderful music.
Abe: What we secretly aspire to.
Carlton: Dream Theater are the shit on steroids. If I were toilet paper I'd definitely absorb them all.
Lopez: I can't wait for the next Mike Portnoy drum DVD. Just joking.
Clay: Well I can't wait for it. I have his other DVDs!
SoT: Fates Warning…
Clay: Another favorite of mine and a band I was hooked onto very early. Disconnected and Parallels are two of my favorite FW albums. Ray has such an amazing voice.
-- Porcupine Tree
Clay: Mike Portnoy would kill me I'm sure, but I haven't really given these guys a hard listen.
Abe: Better under the influence.
Lopez: Really good band. I love Deadwing.
Clay: I have several of their albums and still think they are aliens from another planet that specializes in melting simple human brains.
Lopez: I really dig how those guys keep coming up with really brutal percussive patterns when it seems they've used all of them up.
Clay: Jet City Woman is the greatest song ever created by man!
Lopez: Clay stole my answer.
SoT: What are the band's plans for the near future? Are you planning to tour on Manikin Parade?
Clay: The plan now is to keep promoting Manikin Parade with videos, merch and B-sides. A tour may happen in the fall after we meet at DFest, a festival in Oklahoma, this July and talk with some promoters but nothing set in stone yet! Cross your fingers for us.
Abe: Tour? Sure.
Lopez: Touring is good as long as I can pay my bills!
SoT: Who did the cover art? Does it represent anything special?
Clay: My talented friend Tyler, who is starving in San Francisco as we speak. He did all the artwork, including the inside drawing of the robots. It does represent something but like the concept of the album I like to see what people come up with ;) You'll be seeing more of his art in the upcoming booklet.
SoT: Where does the album title come from?
Clay: Manikin Parade sounds pretty cool doesn't it? Imagine a parade of mannequins marching down a city street. I often equate it to the creepy imagery in Silent Hill 2 when you first stumble upon the lifeless mannequin in the hallway that springs to life. It's provoking and disturbing to me.
(Click here to read our review of Manikin Parade)