After a string of strong releases over the last 13 years, 10T Records' anchor band Man on Fire have put forth their most fully realized platter yet in the form of Chrysalis. Combining elements of progressive rock, funk, jazz, R&B, hard rock, ambient, pop, psychedelia, and trip-hop, Chrysalis is an accessible, catchy, and masterful work that is turning out to be one of 2011's must hear prog-rock albums. Sea of Tranquility Publisher Pete Pardo caught up with founding members Jeff Hodges, Steve Carroll, and Eric Sands to talk about the history of Man on Fire, the new album, the work behind the scenes at 10T Records, live plans, and all things that make the band as unique as they are.
SoT: Congrats on a very fine new CD in 'Chrysalis'! First, for those readers who are perhaps not familiar with the band, can you talk a little bit about the history of the band, early influences of the members, how you came together, etc.?
Jeff: Eric and I have known each other since I was 17, and started playing together in a band in Atlanta called Section 8 in the mid-80s when we were roommates. Early influences for me were ELP, Pink Floyd, Hendrix, Kansas, Yes, as well as classical music. (I was a piano performance major in College and studied classical music extensively).
Eric: Some personal influences of mine at the time were Alex Lifeson, Mick Karn of Japan, Pino Palladino, Jamie West Oram of The Fixx, Tony Levin, and our original Section 8 bassist, bassist Joey Fabian. Steve was responsible for coming up with the name Man on Fire.
Steve: I started out as the manager for Section 8 and slowly grew into an active participant in the music, which is unique for a non-musician. Lyrically, my primary influence has always been Peter Gabriel, but I'm also a big fan of Peter Hammill. I've also grown to be quite a fan of Peter Nichols from IQ. He's great at free form word association lyrics that create word images, which is something I really like to do as well. And the name came from the novel of the same name by A.J. Quinnell, which has been adapted twice into film, most recently for the movie with Denzel Washington. It wasn't the other way around!
SoT: There have been some line-up changes/additions since The Undefined Design and Habitat-can you talk about these a bit?
Jeff: For the new record I was able to draw from new relationships I've formed since I opened my recording studio in Charleston SC. I was able to approach the best of the best musicians I had come across during the last few years to bring into the fold. They all love the previous album and were excited about working on the new one.
Eric: Yeah, after Jeff moved his studio from Atlanta to Charleston, logistics required a new drummer for 'Chrysalis'. We were very lucky to find Quentin. Amazing player! Then Jeff added all the other amazing talent to the palate and 'Chrysalis' was born!
Steve: The fact that Jeff runs Charleston's number one recording studio has a lot of benefits! The incredible musicians that are on 'Chrysalis' were a really nice perk from all of that musician-to-musician studio networking.
SoT: Listening to 'Chrysalis', it appears that the band is really locked in, comfortable with your style, and settled in with this group of musicians. How would you describe the music of Man on Fire to someone who has never heard your music before, and how would you say your music has evolved over the years?
Jeff: I'd describe it as unique, quirky and different yet accessible modern rock music. It has evolved in complexity yet still became more accessible at the same time.
Eric: I agree, it's really unique. I have a hard time describing it accurately. Most people seem to get a vague Idea when I say it's a blend of Peter Gabriel and Japan, only heavier.
SoT: There is a strong funk, pop, jazz, and R&B element running throughout the songs on 'Chrysalis', which makes the album a lot more than your normal progressive rock release. What do you attribute to all these styles coming to the forefront? Has the 'new blood' in the band helped in that matter?
Jeff: Yes, the other artists really helped to mold the direction that a lot of the mixes took. We're fortunate to have such a deep talent pool of musicians with so many different influences. They bring that with them into the studio.
Eric: Jeff has always been a funky writer. Parts of Chrysalis actually remind me of the very first songs we wrote as Section 8, only these are way more mature. Also, the production is better and you can hear nuances that may have been obscured in previous recordings.
SoT: You've had the pleasure of working with David Ragsdale in the past, and now have enlisted the services of Jenny Hugh on the new CD. Jenny's contributions are gorgeous, though I was left wanting more. Do you think you'll incorporate more of her on future recordings?
Jeff: Unlike the soloist style that David Ragsdale brought to The Undefined Design and Habitat, Jenny is a classically trained violinist and we really wanted those to sound more like parts of the song as opposed to solos. And yes, we hope to have her on all our future records; she is amazing.
Eric: She was awesome - a very emotive player. Yes, more is more!
SoT: For me, the three elements of "Chrysalis" that stand out the most are Jeff & Elise's vocals, Eric's bass playing, and the wonderful trumpet of Cameron Harder Handel. Jeff has really come into his own vocally, and Elise is just a fantastic addition here. When the two of you sing together, it's magical! Eric on the other hand is a powerful guitar player, yet it's his fretless bass lines that really stick out. Toss in Cameron's funky, jazz trumpet, along with the rock solid drums of Quentin Ravenell, Jeff's widely layered keyboards, and Steve's intriguing lyrical ideas, and you have a winning formula. Perhaps you'd care to expand on some of these comments and offer your thoughts?
Jeff: This time around, I had plenty of time to really flesh out the songs. Normally when I write, there's a lot more keyboards, but for Chrysalis I was able to write parts specifically for trumpet and violin, and with Elise, I've worked with her on some of her solo projects and fell in love with her voice.
Eric: I agree. Jeff's vocals really impressed me, not just the production, which is great, but also his performance. His keyboard playing is more intense as well.
Steve: Lyrically, this CD afforded me a little more liberty than 'Habitat' did. 'Habitat' was a dream come true for an old school prog-head like me, being that it was a fairly classic concept album. Each of the tracks by necessity had to contain a narrative thread that tied them all together, which was something unique for me. I typically tend to have a more abstract word association/phonetic approach to lyrics, with a less direct narrative voice. On 'Chrysalis' I was able to write in both styles, which was nice.
SoT: From the new CD, the tunes that really resonate the most are 'A (Post – Apocalyptic) Bedtime Story' (which I indicated is like a cross between Kansas and Michael Jackson), the epic title suite, 'Repeat It', and the wild "Gravity", though they are all great in their own way. What are some of your favorite pieces, and what are you hearing from other writers and fans in regards to highlight songs from the album?
Jeff: My favorites this week are 'In a Sense', '(Post - Apocalyptic) Bedtime Story' and 'Gravity'.
Steve: My favorites change from week to week too, although the ones that keep bubbling at the top for me personally are almost the same as Jeff's - 'A (Post - Apocalyptic) Bedtime Story', 'In a Sense' and 'Gravity', but I also keep coming back to 'Repeat It' and the title suite.
Eric: My personal favorite at the moment (it changes), is 'The Projectionist'. It's a fantastic piece with interesting changes and one of my favorite guitar solos ever recorded. It's not particularly shreddy, just expressive and sits well with the mood of the song. I almost never use stock Strats and I'm finding while you have to work a little harder, they have a lot of character. Other reviewers have mentioned 'The Projectionist' as well. The bass on 'Repeat it' and 'In a Sense' is really fun too. Jeff initially sang those parts to me. Next time, we should record the entire process. It would be cool to see how it all comes together in the studio.
SoT: Most progressive rock albums affect different people in different ways, but for the most part folks like to put on a pair of headphones and really just get into the albums from start to finish. 'Chrysalis' however is a CD that you can crank up in the car, toe tap and dance to, rock out to, as well as soothe out and drift into with a pair of headphones. What is it about this album that makes it so much different from say a CD by Yes, Rush, Pink Floyd, Spocks Beard, The Flower KIngs, etc. ?
Jeff: I really spend a lot of time on the production and mixing of the record. During the mixing process, if I felt it needed another instrument, say, tambourine, or a trumpet blast, or a power chord, or whatever, I would stop, call the player in and we'd record it, and then continue mixing. Some of the songs I'd spend 3 or 4 days just on the mix alone.
Steve: I think a big factor is that we don't necessarily start out with the idea of making progressive rock. The music grows organically from a great variety of different influences over a lifetime and there's no attempt to confine it to any preconceptions about what it must be. We all grew up as huge lovers of prog-rock though, and ultimately our vision lands in that genre more by default than design.
Eric: I think the fact that the songs are all based on catchy pop hooks is a differentiator. Strip out all the flashy parts and the songs would stand on their own, even if played on acoustic piano or guitar…hey there's an idea!
SoT: Most progressive rock albums affect different people in different ways, but for the most part folks like to put on a pair of headphones and really just get into the albums from start to finish. 'Chrysalis' however is a CD that you can crank up in the car, toe tap and dance to, rock out to, as well as soothe out and drift into with a pair of headphones. What is it about this album that makes it so much different from say a CD by Yes, Rush, Pink Floyd, Spocks Beard, The Flower KIngs, etc.?
Jeff: We've never been a band that felt the need to force our sound to go into any specific mold or preconception. The music grows organically from a great variety of different influences over a lifetime and there's no attempt to confine it or force it to be anything other than what it becomes over the course of the creative process.
Steve: I agree with Jeff. The band doesn't necessarily start out with the idea of making a progressive rock album. We all grew up as huge lovers of prog-rock though, and ultimately our vision lands in that genre more by default than design.
Eric: I think the songs are all based on catchy pop hooks. Strip out all the flashy parts and the songs would stand on their own, even if played on acoustic piano or guitar…hey there's an idea!
SoT: I'm sure many fans will be wondering if Man on Fire will want to, or be able to, take 'Chrysalis' on the road. Many of the songs here just scream for a live environment, a place where audiences can really experience the music and get into it. Any live plans for the band, or special one-off shows perhaps?
Jeff: Yes, we are currently working on some festival dates and would love to take the act on the road.
Steve: We've also been kicking around the idea of a 10T Records Festival. I think we have a line-up of artists that could really make something like that viable.
Eric: I'm all for It. There aren't many opportunities for prog bands to perform, but if any event organizers are reading this, please contact us!
SoT: If you could do a massive tour with 2 other existing acts, who would they be?
Jeff: Muse, Radio Head.
Steve: Peter Gabriel and/or Muse.
Eric: Obviously I'd love to tour with Rush, but they don't have opening bands anymore. Peter Gabriel or a Genesis reunion tour would be great!
SoT: 10T Records has now been in existence for a few years now, with solid but yet not too large of a roster of bands on the label. Can you talk about the intricacies of starting up a record label, signing bands, productions costs, distribution, and all that goes into running your own label?
Steve: 10T's roster is exactly he size we want it to be at this stage of existence. We've been very careful with our signings to ensure that each band gets the same level of personal support and attention. We were extremely fortunate in the beginning to have great bands like Frogg Café and Little Atlas have enough faith in us to throw their support behind the launch of 10T, which was a huge step in lending instant credibility. This enabled us to hit the scene with 3 bands (including Man on Fire) that had an existing fanbase and following. Given the fact that all of these bands had taken a strong personal hand in many different areas, including marketing, promotion and distribution, we were able to pull together our collective resources and almost immediately establish a strong distribution network of resellers that knew who the bands were already.
In terms of signing bands, Jeff and I have always operated under a simple mantra: it has to be cool and it has to be something we would buy ourselves. So far, that has served us well. Another thing that I think has helped is that Jeff and I have very different yet distinct roles in running the label. Jeff oversees distribution and accounting, and manages our warehouse and fulfillment departments. We have 2 full-time employees who work directly under him to maintain the 10T web presence and ensure the web store and downloads are operating, as well as handling all accounting and order fulfillment, whether individual sales or bulk to distributors. I, on the other hand, am the primary A&R and artist liaison. I also head up the marketing/promotion and graphic design for the label.
SoT: Are there any unsigned bands out there that you have your eyes on as potential 10T acts (you don't have to name names! LOL!)
Steve: As a matter of fact there are a few names and pending announcements, but as you say, we can't really talk about them right now. I think people would probably be shocked to know some of the names that we have spoken to in the past that for one reason or another we decided that the fit wasn't quite right for us to pull the trigger.
SoT: Finally, now that 'Chrysalis" is out, how do you compare it to previous releases, and do you see it as a natural progressive of what Man on Fire is all about?
Steve: I think it's by far the most mature release to date and continues to reinforce the idea that Man on Fire has never and will never try to mimic any other band out there. For better or worse, we are our own unique beast.
Jeff: I echo what Steve said. It's a more mature and well-crafted album than the rest, the proper time was spent in the recording and development and mixing process, and I was able to incorporate many more organic and natural instruments and sounds this time around as opposed to all samples and recreations of natural sounds.
Eric: As a bassist, I couldn't be more proud of this release. It's one of our strongest in that respect. I think the songwriting, production, vocals and keyboard playing have all matured. Six years is a long time and a lot needed to be said! I love all of our CDs as they are snapshots in time. The Undefined Design has been my favorite up to now and parts of the debut standout as well. Listening to the older recordings always brings me back to what was going on in our lives then. Good stuff!
Photos Courtesy of the Band's Website & Facebook Page
(Click here to read our reviews of Chrysalis)