With a history that goes back 17 years, instrumental act Story Of a Life are only just now releasing their debut, self-titled CD. Their story is a long and intricate one, but the important thing is that after many years apart, the band members found their way back to each other so their musical vision could finally be fulfilled. Sea of Tranquility Publisher Peter Pardo caught up with guitarist Sean Tonar, drummer Brian 'Thor' Coutts, bassist Stephen Cox, keyboard player Bill Graham, as well as studio magician Neil Kernon (who mixed the CD) to talk about the history of the band, their chance 'reunion', the creation of the long awaited album, progressive rock & jazz-fusion in general, and their plans going forward.
SoT: Story of a Life's history dates all the way back to 1997-can you talk of the events that led to the formation of the band, and talk about the early days and why the group did not stay together?
Sean: I was living in Athens, GA in the mid 90's. I had answered an ad in a local paper called The Flagpole when I was searching for a drummer to start a new project with. The ad was run by a guy named "Thor" and said he was interested in playing music from Steely Dan and Rush and bands in that ballpark. I thought that was an interesting combo since stylistically they had little in common. I happened to love both so he sounded like someone I'd like to play with. I went to the audition and out walks a guy that looked more like a frat boy than a Nordic god. LOL But once he sat behind the kit he let loose a flurry/fury of beats that made me realize his nickname was fitting.
Early on we worked with a bass player/singer named Bert Morgan playing….you guessed it! Covers from Steely Dan, Rush, Yes, etc. On other days of the week a bass player friend, Robert Herndon, would drop by and we would improvise. It sounded like Cream, The Who and Hendrix for the most part. That sort of raw, power trio stuff. We called that band PLOW because we didn't have any arranged tunes (save for one), we just "plowed" though things, upturning all sorts of stuff along the way. I have 5 or 6 hours of 4 track recordings of our jams and it's a trip to listen back now. You can tell it's us, but our styles have changed and expanded a lot over the years.
Around this time I did my first album of original music called "Inner Spaces". It was a collaboration between Bert and myself. I had met him some years earlier at a Chris Squire (Yes bassist) show and found his home recordings really impressive. He was an inspired singer, guitarist and most of all, song writer. Sometimes meeting someone makes you go "Hey! I'd like a go at that myself!". I played a bit of guitar with him and his brother Bubby (who played keys on their originals and sang a bit too) in the early 90s'. They called their project The Continuum. By '98 I had a collection of songs the two of us had done on the side. I wrote the music and arranged the tunes and he sang and played bass on them. Save for one little epic we rerecorded, "Twilight & Dark", which we evenly collaborated on and recorded back in '93 originally.
Next, I wanted to make an album with Thor. PLOW was fun, but I really wanted to have some arranged tunes to play; a repertoire to build. Around this time Thor made plans to get married and moved to Atlanta. I moved there as well around then when I was offered a job. I had recently purchased a 8 track, multi-track recorder and started visiting Thor weekly with a song arranged in my head. I would play the bass and show him the basic outline and he would lay down a drum part. Even early on we had a kind of telepathy when we played and it was fairly easy to get a drum track I could use. I'd go home and overdub guitars and bring it back the next week and he would go "So THAT'S what we did, huh?! Nice!!".
That became our "Basement Tapes" and was never released, but the origins of our layered studio sound started there. I like to use my collection of guitars and effects like a painter uses paints and different sized brushes. A dash of 12 string here, a squeal of slide guitar there, a tremoloed part, a distorted lead, a dash of acoustic…. You name it. I would "throw" colors on the "canvas" to see what would stick and made the best picture. I still do, and this new CD has a lot of that stuff. The band ended when Thor got married and moved to Florida. We fell out of touch for about ten years.
Thor: We began this musical adventure in Athens, GA in 1997 when Sean responded to my ad in the local music paper, The Flagpole. The ad said my influences were Steely Dan, Rush, Zep... and I was looking for a guitarist who liked the same. After auditioning 6 or 7 guitar players, Sean Tonar showed up. I believe the first song we played was Freewill; and that moment sealed the deal. We jammed as often as possible, incorporated other musicians occasionally, but when I got married and moved to Florida, the commute was just too far. Sean and I lost touch for 10 years, but after moving back to Atlanta, one fateful evening, I looked him up on MySpace and we're back - stronger than ever!
SoT: The music, as it sounds today, is a classy, eclectic mix of vintage jazz-fusion, progressive rock, funk, and jam styles. Can you compare how Story of a Life differed at all musically back in the late '90s, or, is your music & vision pretty close now as it was back then?
Thor: Our current sound is definitely more refined and evolved over our original efforts. We have grown as musicians over the years and I think the biggest improvement is dynamics. We now have the ability to contain a burning solo at low volume and can crescendo or decrescendo much better now. That alone adds so much more texture and emotion to a song. Also, our musical tastes have expanded over the years so our creative influences are more sophisticated now.
Sean: Some of the funky, jazz meets rock sound we have on this new album started back then. We were less focused, and less polished. Like on our "Basement Tapes", we would have a metal tune and then follow it with a funk one, a jazz wannabe one, an acoustic Latin inspired piece, etc. Other times, we did all of that in one tune! So stylistically we were all over the place. I think we have learned to be focused and make an album that flows in a way that makes sense. For example, we had a really heavy, metal inspired tune we wrote and recorded in the sessions for this album that didn't make the cut because it just didn't fit with the rest. I even tried to add acoustics to make it less heavy and it still was saying "save me for next time and make an album that I fit well on". And I suspect we will….
SoT: Sean, you've been in a few bands since Story of a Life originally drifted apart, including Speechless, who probably weren't too far removed from the type of music this band is now doing. Can some of you talk about the projects/bands you were in prior to the Story of a Life reunion?
Sean: First one I was part of was called Mindworm, which was a classic symph prog band with more than a bit of old Genesis in the mix. Our singer/keyboardist Kirk Barnes has a similar voice to Peter Gabriel so the comparisons were inevitable. We did a great little EP and played a few shows but the members for the most part were family guys with less time than needed to devote to such an esoteric, artsy band. I love Kirk's writing style and hope we can do some songs together again someday.
Around then I also joined a band called NoiseDotCom. It had been its own thing for a few years before I arrived, but it became an outlet for a lot of my writing after a year or so. So it was just me and the drummer, Mike Geeslin, for about a year as we wrote the material and found the new version of the band. Most of which we already knew. We had 20+ originals, all instrumental, save for a couple tunes we did from the Inner Spaces CD. The roots of SOAL lie in a lot of those NDC songs. What we are doing now isn't too far removed. NDC even played a few songs from the SOAL Basement Tapes.
Then Speechless arrived and that was a chance to have a four way split when it came to writing. It was a true collaborative group, initially. We put out an album and played 30+ shows in a two year time span, including the ProgDay preshow in 2008. It was a great time and we were half way into writing a follow up when "artistic differences" came to the fore and I was gone. It was time to do something else and I just didn't know it at the time. Soon it would be clear something was waiting in the wings.
As I was sitting around thinking about what I wanted to do next (start over, obviously!) I got an odd message from a "stranger" on MySpace asking me to critique a song. Long story short, it was Thor. I guess he had been looking for me for a few years. Even hired a PI to track me down, with no luck. One day he thought to try MySpace and found me right away. I told him "If this is who I think it is, call me! We have a lot of music to make!" That was early 2009. We started writing straight away. We played a few shows with our first bass player Dave Snyder and then in 2012, with our second, Greg Surratt. We were after a guy with a more flexible schedule though (closer proximity too) and spent the better part of 2013 auditioning 20+ local bass players. All of which were great in different ways, it was a lot of fun.... But Stephen Cox just clicked the first time we played with him in a way no one else did. We knew he was "the one". He could do funk,prog, jazz and even metal so that sold us on him pretty quick! I'm glad we found him, the search was starting to wear on us.
We/I have played with Bill Graham (keys) on and off for years and did a few gigs with him in tow and some as a trio. We enjoy both config. Each brings out a different side to a live show. Bill adds some class to the proceedings and a lot of texture and color. As a trio we are more rock.... We met at a festival I played at when he was just 16. Here was this kid who looked like Rick Wakeman (sorta) and had a trio playing all this complex prog stuff. I was impressed and once I heard his writing I knew I wanted to work with him eventually.
SoT: I noted in my review of the new CD some hints of Camel, Happy the Man, Yes, Return to Forever, Brand X, Herbie Hancock, Weather Report, Gentle Giant, and George Benson. Can you all talk about some of your musical influences, and how they played (or didn't) a part in the creation of the songs on the CD?
Sean: When I write I try to ignore influences for the most part and stretch into new areas. This time I really wanted to make a rock record with jazzy inflections. I am not a straight up jazzer like Bill is; I'm a rock guy that uses a lot of jazzy chords. So doing an album in that ballpark exclusively was new for me. It's something I wanted to do for years; I just never played with players who could go there convincingly, until now. The tones and chordal choices put us squarely in the fusion ballpark that many of the bands/artists you mention are in, but I wasn't thinking of any of them when we were writing. Though I love every one you mentioned to some degree. My only thoughts were "is this piece of music happening? Do I like it enough to expand on it?" For the first year or so (2009) Thor and I met weekly and improvised. I recorded each session and broke each into MP3s of varying lengths for each idea. When I saved them I would name each the first thing that popped into my head. Some were descriptive- "Droney D", ""Fives and Sevens", etc. Others were just random nonsense- "12 Day Sinatra", "Bourgeois Spies", "West Of Elaine", "Itzak's Day Off", etc....
Some were almost fully arranged. "Continental Blue" was like that, we played that arrangement you hear on the CD at its inception. We got lucky there. It just popped out fully formed. Others were not as easy. "Globetrekker" was the opposite and was rearranged via dry erase board several times until it was how you hear it here. Each section had its own name too. "Mystery Walk" is the only one I remember.... The arpeggios in the opening section (after the intro) were the seed that grew and inspired the rest. A bit of "Itzak's" wound up in there too, this weird, 1/2 step pull off lick I do with my fingers towards the end of the tune.
"Anything" came from the batch of songs I wrote right after Speechless, before Thor showed up. It's just a little pop rock tune inspired by The Who and The Beatles. George Harrison in particular. That's the Mellotron flute from "Strawberry Fields" at the beginning the bass doubles. Originally I wanted to make it the production very 60s sounding, complete with Farfisa organ. Once we tried it though, it cheapened the sound so much we left everything but the 'Tron flute on it. It deserved a better fate than being some tacky pastiche. A nice breather, mid CD.
"Lucid Dream" follows and is a kind of "sampler plate" the way it goes through a variety of moods and grooves. The intro I remember playing with Speechless in a session once, and it's probably the oldest riff on the CD. "Travelin' Light" was the first tune we worked on as a band. Early on, Bill was with us and we collaborated on this one.
That first year as I saved these clips from our jams (50+ ideas) the software would prompt me to add a band name and album name. Story Of A Life came to mind. No ideas why.... I guess I thought i was telling someone's story with all these musical bits? Not sure... I just left that in there and for the album title all the 50+ clips said Story Of A Life. When it came time to find a band name we tried a lot of things and one day I thought, "Hey, that's not too bad" "I don't hate it like most of these and we have been looking at it for over a year". I liked that it was more than a word long and that it didn't sound like a prog band. It almost sounded emo, but i didn't care. I kind of like the non-offensive "bait and switch" the name, the font and album art poses. You can tell some prog guys made this CD, but it really isn't deliberately prog. There's a wider appeal, though my prog loving friends that have had a preview found a lot to like since they like music bordering on fusion and crafty pop too. This is an album you can play your wife too and she won't beg you to take it off.
Bill: Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Joe Zawinul are among my very favorite keyboardists, along with George Duke and Tommy Mars (from Frank Zappa's bands.) For the most part, by the time I heard these songs, the rhythm tracks were already done, and it was more a matter of finding the appropriate overdubs to flesh out the arrangements. I tried to stay pretty transparent, and just play whatever it was that the song needed. I did have some harmonic suggestions, and I wrote some melodies where necessary, but in general I was just doing my best to support Sean's concept.
SoT: Neil Kernon did the mixing on the CD, and as always, he did a fantastic job. Neil, how did you happen to get introduced to the band, and what made you decide to fit them in to your busy schedule? Is there something about the band that really stood out and made you say "I have to work with these guys?"
Neil: I heard about the band from Sean Tonar, who I knew from the Progressive Ears site. I contribute off and on to some of Sean's musical threads in Facebook, and we were talking about some band from the '70s or other one day, and I had mentioned the band Patto, who Sean wasn't familiar with. Anyway, as it sometimes happens, the conversation moved along to album sound, and Sean asked me if I would mind giving a song of his band's a listen, and critique it for him, which I gladly agreed to do.
When I heard the mix it was evident that there was quite a lack of clarity to the overall mix, and so rather than try to unravel quite a tangled puzzle, and try to list a number of areas that I thought could use help, I thought I'd offer to do a mix of a song for the band.
That's the way the conversation started anyway, but, as it was during the World Cup, and being a big fan of football, I had tailored my schedule quite a lot, so I knew that I would have some free time in there to see what I could do with his stuff.
So, as the recordings weren't terribly involved as far as track-count, and there being just 5 songs, I thought that this could be the perfect size of mix project to do, starting in the afternoons after the matches were over.
SoT: On those same lines Neil, would you say that Story of a Life has some of the same qualities, and will appeal to fans of that classic jazz-fusion/prog sound?
Neil: More than anything, I'm a jazz and fusion fan, so when I heard the music it certainly sounded like it would be up my street. Sean had described the direction as being along the lines of a blend of the Canterbury scene influence, with some sort of Steely Dan influence harmonically, so I thought that sounded like quite a promising blend.
There's definitely prog and fusion flavours in abundance in the project. I think it will appeal to fans of numerous different styles, being that there's a melting pot of flavours in the music.
SoT: For the rest of the band, how does it feel to have the legendary Neil Kernon mixing your debut CD?
Sean: I'm proud and flattered, to say the least! I think I pinched myself to be sure I wasn't dreaming so many times I have a bruise. LOL! I grew up with many of the albums/singles he has been involved with. From my 45s phase when the Hall and Oates big hits were charting, into my metal phase where I loved albums like Unleashed In The East from Judas Priest and Rage For Order from Queensryche, to name a few. At the same time I got into prog and fusion like Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra, etc and Neil had a hand in those records as well. So in a way his work has been in my mind and ears most of my life. If someone told me ten years ago he'd be mixing an album I was part of I would have told you to put the crack pipe down. But karma has a nice way of making the rounds I guess. Thanks, Neil! Thanks for seeing something in the mess of tracks I sent. You made it sound amazing!
Stephen: It's awesome having Neil work on our CD! He has done a wonderful job bringing the songs a new life. Every instrument is so much clearer on each track than I thought possible. He has also been extraordinarily patient with working with us.
Thor: . It is an absolute honor to have Neil Kernon produce our album. He has been a consummate professional throughout the entire process and we are tremendously grateful to him for his work, his expertise, and his patience... To think that we share the roster with all of the big names he has worked with is mind blowing!
SoT: Each member, tell us about your musical influences and how your style developed and what you feel you bring to the band's sound.
Bill: My father (Jez Graham) is an incredible jazz pianist/keyboardist, and he brought me out on gigs with him from a very early age, playing everything from jazz standards to pop music to odd-meter fusion. I learned a whole lot on the bandstand, and I also learned a whole lot from absorbing his record collection. Miles, Bird, Keith Jarrett, Chick, Herbie, Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, Frank Zappa, Stevie Wonder, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, and Todd Rundgren are some favorites/major influences.
Stephen: Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Victor Wooten, Primus, Marcus Miller, Weather Report (Jaco), Adam Nitti, Metallica, Dream Theater.
My style developed from a more metal background at first, then branching out to reggae, then I went to Georgia State University and studied jazz. Over the years, I've played in bands that have played Metal, Reggae, Blues, Rock, Jazz, Hip Hop, Bluegrass, and even Country.
I bring a melodic funky edge with a side of chops to the SOAL sound.
SoT: Bill gets a lot of classic tones on the album-what are some of the various keyboards you used to create such rich, vintage sounds?
Bill: Actually, almost every keyboard sound on the record comes from my Korg SV-1. The lead synth is an Arturia Minibrute, which is a very affordable fully analog monophonic synthesizer, but pretty much everything else (Rhodes, Wurli, CP80, Arp String Ensemble, Clavinet) is coming from the Korg. The Mellotron string and flute samples were on a laptop running Kontakt.
Sean: I will add that on Globetrekker the clavinet is real (it's Bill's Hohner), not the Korg. I think he might have forgotten that one!
SoT: The songs on the debut range from atmospheric, jazzy numbers, to Latin funk, complex prog, and burning jazz fusion; what are some of the members favorite tracks, and why?
Thor: Continental Blue has been one of my favorites from its inception. It is upbeat from the start and then takes some unpredictable turns throughout; it is a fun ride to listen to and play! Lucid Dream has become another favorite as it has developed. It builds slowly, with an airy intro into a funky groove, then builds further into the bass and drum solos. Both are of these songs are a good representation of the colors in our musical palette.
Sean: That's tough for me to answer, I love them all. I'd say Globetrekker or Lucid Dream are my faves to play live since they are so energetic. From a traditional "song" angle I'd say Travelin' Light is probably my fave. That was the one song I collaborated with Bill on and the bridge he added is one of my favorite parts of the album. The way it modulates to a remote key and works its way back to the original key is really brilliant and beautiful. That's the symph moment on the album for sure, with the Mellotron strings under it. Very tasty stuff!
Stephen: My favorites are Travelin' Light, for all the textures and ambient vibes, and Globe Trekker because it's a bit more edgy than the other songs. However, every song has sections that I love to listen to and play.
SoT: More often than not, modern prog/fusion fare tends to be rather 'showy' and chops heavy, and bands seem to forget that you need to make the songs memorable. How important was it to create songs that relied more on melody and catchy arrangements, rather than bowl everyone over with lots of impressive soloing or complex passages?
Sean: That's sort of where my head's always been at. Songs are what you need first, not just a chops vehicle. I've been guilty of just slamming things together when arranging in the past and this time around I wanted better arrangements, ones that flowed from one section to the next logically, like a good song does. Where you don't go "What the hell is this doing in here?!" I like it when it all goes down as one vibe, rather than a collection of disparate ones, forced together for no good reason. Lucid Dream is probably the most unusual and a throwback to the kitchen sink approach, yet, in context I think it adds an element of unpredictability. So it's cool to have one tune like that on here, but a whole CD of that approach would have been too scattered to hold up. I figure at the end of the day, or album or gig it will be pretty obvious we can play, no need to beat people over the head with it on the album with lengthy solos. Come see us live for that. I don't want to just make "musician's music" on the album.
That said, there's plenty of great playing here for those that enjoy that aspect. More than just about anything though I want the world to hear Bill, Thor and Stephen. They are fantastic and need to be known by many! Bill is a great composer in his own right and has written volumes of fantastic, diverse original music. Stephen is a talented songwriter and multi-instrumentalist as well. Thor shines in any context. His stylistic versatility makes just about any style within our grasp. He has written a Latin percussion piece for the next album I think people are going to be blown away by. Sorry it wasn't ready because I think it would have worked well on this album.
Bill: Well, while I'm certainly no adversary to soloing or complex passages, the importance of melody simply cannot be overstated.
SoT: Curious to see what Top 3 bands, any genre, that each member is currently into at this time?
Stephen: The 4 Korners (a local fusion band), Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, and Umphrey's McGee
Thor: Currently I am on a 70's R&B kick with bands such as Chic, The O'Jays, The Dramatics, etc... The sound that I am striving for on drums nowadays is derived from the funky grooves from the 70's. In another genre that I like is a progressive band from Germany called Passport whose instrumental explorations are quite powerful. They have influenced some of my playing on this album. As my musical tastes evolve, I am leaning more towards a great melody, or hook, rather than complexity.
Sean: That changes on any given day. Today these come to mind first- Ghost Of A Saber Toothed Tiger, Sean Lennon's current group. It's like a fresh dose of 60s psychedelic. Also, Pat Metheny and an old standby, Yes. Their new CD inspired me to reconsider a lot of the back catalog (1983 on up) in a way I haven't before.
SoT: What are your live plans for the band in the coming months?
Sean: We want to get known on the local scene more for starters. Each of us knows a good portion of the musicians in town, but the band isn't that well known yet. It's good to be known in your town before moving on to others, I think….. A gig every couple weeks (or at least monthly) would be a good way to spend the next year. A small, east coast tour (or southeast) would be eventual as well.
Stephen: Play at least a show a month at Local Venues, then book a South-East US tour.
SoT: How important are social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, etc. to the bands short & long term plans?
Stephen: Social media is extremely helpful. We are lucky to have so much support from our fans, and sites like facebook are the best way to reach them currently.
Sean: In this day and age, VERY! Since the demise of MySpace though it's been harder. There you could search profiles for people that had similar musical interests and send them an invite. FB is limited to the people on your friends list, so the reach isn't as wide. I think a several pronged approach is needed. FB is the heart of it these days, but that alone probably won't do.
SoT: Look into your crystal ball-where do you see Story of a Life over the next 1-5 years?
Thor: We are finally at the point of getting this project off the ground, and this is a very exciting time for Story of a Life! Along with our CD's, performances, marketing, merchandise, etc., we are getting our business affairs in order (publishing rights, LLC...) so we are now prepared with a business plan to move onward and upward! I foresee in the near future traveling throughout the world sharing our passion for music with others.
Sean: I see us doing a new CD every couple years and venturing into rockier terrain, initially for the follow up to the debut. Beyond that, we will have to see where the muse steers us.
Stephen: I see us touring the US and possibly Europe, creating another cd with more of a funky/reggae/edgy vibe.
SoT: Any last words you'd like to say to the Sea of Tranquility readers?
Sean: You all are the best! Well versed in many kinds of music. If only the day to day world was too!
Thor: Special thanks to Sea Of Tranquility and Peter Pardo for giving us the opportunity to share our music and our vision with others. We wish you continued success with your publication. Cheers!
Stephen: Thanks for reading! Thanks also to all the fans who have contributed to our success!
Photos courtesy of Allen Law
(Click here to read our review of Story Of a Life)