Having parted company with legendary AOR frontman Tony Mills, Welsh AOR-sters Serpentine have moved quickly to find a replacement capable of matching Mills' performance on the band's excellent second album Living And Dying In High Definition. Sea of Tranquility staff writer Steven Reid caught up with keyboard player Gareth Noon to find out more.
SoT: Hi Gareth thanks for taking the time to answer some questions.
Your debut album A Touch Of Heaven was released only last year to an extremely positive reaction. You must have been really pleased with how well it was received?
Gareth: More surprised than anything really Steven! Other than Tony, none of us in the band had released an album before and we were amazed with how well the album went down. That's not to say that it wasn't a lot of hard work, because we certainly put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into it, but you get so close to it and kind of get lost in a bubble, that you lose perspective at times. The first review we got back was the 92% one from Burrn Magazine in Japan and found out that it had been syndicated on 27 FM stations in Japan! That was insane! We are genuinely humbled by the response we've had.
SoT: Initially a lot of the media coverage that Serpentine received back then centred round your then lead singer Tony Mills, who is best known for his time with Shy, TNT and Siam. How did you guys manage to hook up with such a hugely respected figure in the world of melodic rock?
Gareth: Yes, I don't disagree with the fact that Tony was the main focus, but that was part of the plan. We needed something to get people's attention. We were fully aware that we were total unknowns in the world of melodic rock, so Tony being associated with us made people curious I suppose. It was a total stroke of luck as well. We'd parted company from another guy we were working with and we contacted a whole bunch of 'named' singers in the genre, but it needed that one piece of luck to click. We got in touch with Tony via Bob Richards [drummer with the band Shy], who Chris had met by accident at a studio, and for whatever reason Tony showed a real interest in working with us.
SoT: Obviously having Tony onboard must have brought more attention than a new band might normally receive, however was it quite hard at the time to keep the focus on the music, when most people were focusing on Tony being involved?
Gareth: Not too much! We did things like our music video to get as much of the music out there as possible, but I think generally when the dust settles on any gimmicks or distractions, the music does the talking. Like anything, some people like it, some don't, but I think that A Touch Of Heaven was as good a start as we could bring to the table, and we wanna go onwards and upwards now.
SoT: Was there ever a danger that you might have been seen in the media as "just another" of Tony's many side projects?
Gareth: There's always a danger that you can be lost in the shuffle I suppose. But, I think, that compared to some of Tony's other projects, we were a bit different. A lot of the other musicians Tony works with are well known guys, and we were an unknown entity, so I think that sparked a lot of interest that perhaps some of his other projects don't get. We were also all together in the UK, as opposed to being a transatlantic project or something like that, so we had the chance to do extra promotion like the video shoot. You mention the word "project" in the question there though, which probably also has something to do with it. Serpentine is a real band, and not just a project thing where you might do an album and say, "that was fun", and then move on. We have always seen it as something that will continue to grow and evolve, and I think our new album is proof of that evolution.
SoT: I've interviewed Tony on a couple of occasions and he always comes across as a really nice and easy to get along with guy. However was it slightly intimidating to work with such an experienced singer for your first album?
Gareth: At first, yes, it was a totally surreal experience, and we were all a little in awe of him at the beginning. Tony is, as you say though, a really easy guy to get on with and it felt very natural very quickly. The best thing about having Tony in the band really, was how easy it was to mature as writers and quickly lose the naivety and "greenness". We have always been totally receptive to everything he's told us because, at the end of the day, he's been there and got a whole collection of T-Shirts to prove it! From song arrangements to rehearsal, he's always done his best to improve what Serpentine is doing, and I think that's really paid off for us. Most bands just starting out don't get that kind of benefit.
SoT: That's true Gareth, but you've actually parted company with Tony now, so what brought that about?
Gareth: That was mainly due to Tony's heart attack last year. He's moved to Norway to be closer to his main focus, TNT, and cut out all the travelling which was taking its toll on his body. We were so far into the new album at the time that it made sense for him to finish it as his last record with the band, and then for us to move on. In the meantime we started getting offered gigs here, there and everywhere so we moved to replace Tony as quickly as possible and found Matt Black. It's made things a little confusing because obviously we are touring with Matt at the moment but it's Tony's voice that's on the new record, but Matt is the new guy and we are starting to write a third album with him this year already.
SoT: That's right, you've teamed up with Matt who has also sung with Invisible Idols, as well as doing some solo work. What has Matt brought to the band and how easy has it been to have someone else front the band?
Gareth: It's been very easy really; probably because we never got to play with Tony live. He's the only guy we've shared a stage with fronting Serpentine, so it fits like a glove for us. Matt's a great character and it's easy to get on with him on and off the stage, which was something very important to us as well. He's a great young talent and we're very pleased to have him in the band.
SoT: Will Tony remain involved with the band in the future though, maybe contributing to song writing?
Gareth: There's certainly a good possibility that will happen. We are actually talking about Serpentine supporting TNT in Norway at some point next year, and there's a chance he will continue to chip in here and there with some lyrics or backing vocals or something like that. When the news first hit that Serpentine and Tony were parting ways, I read online, from someone claiming to be in the know, that apparently there had been some big falling out between us. Nothing could be further from the truth and a few members of Serpentine shared a stage with Tony just this last week at a wedding for one of Tony's friends in Birmingham. So there is still an excellent relationship there! If nothing else, he will certainly continue to be a mentor and friend to us all!
SoT: A Touch Of Heaven was also notable for having the production team of Mark Stuart and Sheena Sear on it, who amongst others have worked with Magnum. Was it a little surreal to be working with such a respected team, and Tony Mills; then being signed to the respected AOR Heaven for a debut album?
Gareth: It's perhaps scarier that it all became quite normal rather quickly! We've been incredibly lucky and we're very grateful for that.
SoT: Are Mark and Sheena still involved with the plans for the future?
Gareth: Most definitely. I can't see this band working with a different set of producers to be honest. They know exactly what we're looking for and you couldn't find a better team. They are totally up for a laugh too, and that's great. I'd hate to be recording an album over a period of months in a stuffy environment. They make the whole process very relaxed. They've produced the new record Living And Dying In High Definition, along with guitarist Chris Gould and myself, and we're so delighted by how it sounds that I don't think we'd change working with those guys!
SoT: Going further back, to before Tony came on board with the band, you actually were working with a singer called Greg Flores who had been in Kamera. Why did you not record with him?
Gareth: That's such a long story and it seems like a lifetime ago now! We did some 'transatlantic' recordings with Greg after meeting him online, but the bottom line is that things simply took too long to get done. Chris and I were writing a couple of songs a week at that time and in a year, Greg was really only able to record the vocal tracks to three of them. He didn't have enough time to commit to what we were trying to do and in the end we just had to move on. We landed on our feet in the end and did end up recording a version of a song we'd written and demoed with him, "We Belong", on the A Touch Of Heaven album, but it seems like an age ago!
SoT: I was lucky enough to see Serpentine play on your recent tour with Crash Diet, Houston, and Miss Behaviour. Matt certainly seems to have fitted right in with the band's sound and has a great stage presence. You must have been pleased with how things went?
Gareth: Most definitely! The tour was a big deal for us because, before that, we'd only played one show, at the Borderline in London. I think the tour started cementing in people's minds that we have a new singer, and Matt certainly won a great many fans on that tour! It was the start of showing both what we can do, and what we want to do, which is get out and about and make people aware of the band. There are so many projects and bands that just don't tour or even play festivals these days, and we really didn't want to get painted with that same brush. We've always wanted to play shows, ever since we released A Touch Of Heaven. We just didn't have our chance until now.
SoT: The Glasgow show that I was at was an excellent night. However the only downside was the small crowd. Was the rest of the tour better attended?
Gareth: Yes, most of the tour was very well attended and it was heart warming to see so many people coming out of the woodwork to see four relatively young bands. That being said, we all still enjoyed our evening in Glasgow. You're right that it was quite a small crowd that night, but they made up for it and it was a great atmosphere in there!
SoT: The other thing that stuck out on the night was that many in the crowd had obviously turned up to see Crash Diet and not the AOR bands on the bill. Do you think they were a slightly strange fit for the rest of the AOR friendly bill and did the same thing happen on the rest of the tour?
Gareth: You know, you do what you can, to play in front of as many people as possible, and Crash Diet certainly attract an audience. All the bands sold plenty of merch on the tour, so we obviously won a few over, and that's the point at the end of the day; getting as many people to pay attention to your music as possible!
SoT: It did take you guys some time to get out on the road. Is it quite hard for a UK AOR band to play as many shows as you would like to?
Gareth: Well, that was more to do with the whole Tony situation than anything else, really. We'll be out and about plenty more from now on. If we'd wanted to just make albums and never play them, we could have carried on working with Tony; with him in Norway and us in the UK; but we were desperate to tour, so that's what we're working on now. We've got a gig in Germany this month, Firefest and Madrid next month, and we're trying to pad out those shows with some others around them at the moment; so keep one eye on the tour dates part of our MySpace page! I don't specifically think it's hard to get shows booked; it's just a case of making the effort to sell the tickets and keeping the band constantly in motion. It's definitely hard work, but playing the shows is such a blast!
SoT: So there are there any plans to tour outside of the UK?
Gareth: As I say, there are two gigs on foreign soil over the next two months, which will be Serpentine's first time playing outside of the UK. Hopefully that will lead to more work supporting another band out there or some more festivals next year. We're well up for anything!
SoT: On the recent tour you played a couple of new songs "Philadelphia" and "Cry", which were both excellent and represent your new album well. Do you think that Living And Dying In High Definition is an improvement on your debut album?
Gareth: I think so… I think the new album is definitely a step ahead of the last one, and I mean that both from a music perspective, and from a lyrical perspective. We felt, when we were out playing the tour that we should throw a couple of new ones into the set and those two seemed to lend themselves perfectly to the setting. We are rehearsing a longer set at the moment with some more songs from the Living And Dying... album, so if there's anything anyone wants to hear, don't be shy about emailing us and telling us! If there's something we're not playing that we should be, we want to hear!! This album is certainly a level up from the first one, so hopefully we'll keep growing in a positive way and the next one will be even better!
SoT: Was Matt involved early enough in the process to help with song writing for the album at all?
Gareth: Well, most of the album was recorded by the time we actually met Matt, so no, he hasn't written anything for this album, but he will obviously be heavily involved in the writing of our third record as I mentioned before. He did join in on the backing vocals for the whole album though, and we also recorded a new version of the song "Lonely Nights", from our first record, for the Japanese bonus track, just to give people a little taster of what we all sound like together on a record now. We've uploaded it to our MySpace page actually, so be sure to check it out!
SoT: In recent times the media have been talking up the "return" of AOR and some of the classics bands from the history of the genre have been releasing excellent and successful new albums. Has that resurgence fed down to younger, new bands like Serpentine?
Gareth: Oh yes, definitely! There is a real energy about the genre at the moment, and we're all lapping that up. We all want to emulate our heroes, and we all want to hear new albums from those bands too. It's great to see our name on the Firefest poster, alongside bands like Warrant, Jimi Jamison and Unruly Child for example. As much as the mainstream press love to deny it, there is still plenty of life in this genre, and I think there are a few more green shoots at the moment than before.
SoT: So what music did you and the band listen to when you were growing up?
Gareth: I first started getting into this genre back in 2001, when I was 16. I went to the "Gods…" show in Bradford the next year and that just cemented things for me completely. We all love our melodic rock music, but Chris also likes country and metal; Gareth Vanstone is very much a blues and classic rock junkie and Roy likes just about anything! The first two albums that got me into melodic rock were Hugo's debut album and Far Beyond The World by Ten.
SoT: So you guys have two excellent albums available now, but what other hopes do you have for the band and what can we expect from you over the next few years?
Gareth: I really don't know to be honest, and that's what's so exciting. We have a bit of an unknown quantity in Matt, so where the music will go, for the third album, I really can't say at this point. Chris and I have started writing a couple of new songs and we are very pleased with what we are writing right now, and it's all very fresh again, which is great! The one thing I can say, for definite, is that Serpentine will be sticking around making more records and getting out on the road much more. That I promise!
SoT: Thanks for answering the questions, is there anything else you'd like to add?
Gareth: Just, thanks very much for taking an interest in the band Steven, and be sure to check out Living And Dying In High Definition. It's out now in Europe and Japan! We are streaming five new songs - and a few old ones - at the myspace page, www.myspace.com/planetserpentine, so there's no excuse! Haha! Hope to see you all on the road!
(Click here to read our reviews of Living And Dying In High Definition)