Rob van der Loo is the bass player from progressive metal band Sun Caged, but he recently put out a solo project under the moniker Freak Neil Inc.. Characters is a solid mix of metal and progressive rock styles that also features an assortment of guest musicians who have helped van der Loo create one of the hottest CD releases of the year. Sea of Tranquility's Murat Batmaz caught up with Rob to talk about the making of the CD, the band, his musical background, and the status of Sun Caged.
Read on for the full interview.
SoT: Hi Rob, congratulations on your new album under the Freak Neil Inc moniker. It's the best thing Lion Music has released in 2005 so far.
Rob: Thank you very much, I'm glad to hear that!
SoT: Characters is actually your solo work. Could you tell us a bit about how you came up with the name Freak Neil Inc.
Rob: I don't really see this as a solo album but rather as a project for which I'm responsible. Therefore I didn't want to call this project "Rob van der Loo" and I looked for a different name. Since my nickname is "Freak Neil" I thought it would be cool to use this name and to add "Inc." which stands for incorporation of several musicians.
SoT: Could you talk a bit about your musical background? How long have you been playing and did you record any other CDs besides Sun Caged?
Rob: That's a long story but basically I started playing when I was about 15 years old. I played in loads of bands (from grindcore to jazz-rock) and recorded many demo's, EP's and several tribute albums. Most of those bands were just for hobby but since I joined SC I started to make music more seriously and I realised that I wanted to be a professional musician.
SoT: Who were your main influences when you decided to pick up the bass as a full-time instrument?
Rob: I guess my biggest influences at that time were Cliff Burton, John Paul Jones, Geezer Butler, David Ellefson and Roger Glover.
SoT: How have the reactions to Characters been so far?
Rob: So far the reactions have been very good even though this project is very different compared to what people were used to hearing from me.
SoT: Compared to your debut EP, your new disc features a lot of guests, including bassists Sean Malone and Steve DiGiorgo. Being a bass guy yourself, how did you hook up with them and handle the writing of their solo spots?
Rob: We've been in touch for a while by sending e-mails to each other. After sending some demo material of this album they told me that they wanted to join the project. Since I didn't want this album to sound like a solo album, I thought it would be very cool to also ask a few other bassists.
For the solo spots I didn't give them exact lines but I just told them which type of solos I wanted to hear, this gave the musicians more freedom to be creative.
SoT: Is bass the only instrument you play? How do you go about composing new songs? How was the songwriting process for the guitar and synth parts?
Rob: I used to play saxophone when I was a kid but I sucked! Besides bass I also play Chapman Stick and rhythm guitar. When I have some new ideas for a song I write it down on paper and record it with MIDI using programs like Cubase or Logic. For this Project, I wanted all solos to be free but of course I gave tips and hints for the solos. One example is the song "Bulldozer Blues", in the instrumental middle section I wanted a solo duel between James Murphy and Joost van den Broek. Since they never met or spoke to each other before I had to give exact details (like where in the song and the function of the solo) to make it sound as good as possible. And it worked fine cause it actually sounds like a real solo combat.
SoT: Interestingly, although Andre Vuurboom and Joost van der Broek left Sun Caged on somewhat bad terms, you did manage to combine their services with that of Marcel Coenen's and yourself. How did this happen?
Rob: The fact that André and Joost aren't longer part of Sun Caged doesn't mean that we aren't friends anymore. When they left the band I knew we would work together some time and this was one of those opportunities.
SoT: Andre's vocal style takes a 180 on Characters. He sounds absolutely different yet amazing.
Rob: Most people know him from his work with Sun Caged which was a bit more in the style of Dream Theater but I knew he could do much more than that.
Wait until you hear his new album with Sphere of Souls!
SoT: Have you ever heard James Murphy's first solo album Convergence? The song "Bulldozer Blues" on Characters eerily reminds me of Convergence perhaps because of Nick Hameury's exceptional Devin Townsend-like delivery?
How do you find all these new singers?
Rob: Oh yeah, I'm a big fan of his work. know what you mean, you're not the first one who told me that . For me that's a real compliment!
Rob van der Loo
It wasn't that hard to find them since I have been bandmates with André Vuurboom and Nick Hameury before. Thanks to Joost I got in touch with Arjen Lucassen and Irene Jansen (since they performed together on the Star One tour).
SoT: Can you talk a bit about Arjen Lucassen's contribution to the album?
Rob: Arjen did the vocals for the song "I Understand" and recorded it at his home studio also known as "The Electric Castle". I was amazed by his performance since it sounds much more experimental than what he used to do!
SoT: You play a wide range of different bass guitars. How did you decide to play what bass on each song and what does your rig consist of nowadays?
Rob: That all depended on sound and tonal range. When I needed to play melodies or higher chords I needed my Conklin 7 string, Conklin 9 string or Chapman Stick. For thick and low tuned bass lines I needed my (low tuned) 6 string fretless bass or the 9 string. For the heavy distorted rythm parts I used my Lindert guitar bass. This is a (extra) long scale guitar tuned as a bass but with the sound of a guitar.
On stage I use an Ashdown bass head with an 8x10" (or 4x10") cabinet and a floarboard with the following pedals:
-Electro Harmonix Bassballs
-Electro Harmonix Double Muff
-Electro Harmonix Bass Micro synthesizer
-Boss line selector
-Morley wah pedal
-Carl Martin Bass Chorus
-Digitech Digital Delay
SoT: What is the full concept behind Characters? Did you write it all on your own?
Rob: Since I wanted to make a very diverse album by using different styles of music I thought it would be a cool idea to make every song completely different and to let each song symbolise a different character. Each song is a different story but they stand for frustration. So yes, I did write all the material on my own.
SoT: Another surprise for me on the album was Chris Godin. Can you tell us a bit about this fusion shredder?
Rob: Chris Godin is an amazing guitarist! First of all Ron-Bumblefoot-Thal wanted do the job but unfortunately he had to cancel it. But Ron promissed me he would look for a new guitarist so he gave me Chris' phone number. I'm glad I got in touch with him cause he's a true guitar freak!
SoT: What can people expect from Freak Neil next? Is this going to be just a studio project or are you going to play any gigs?
Rob: First I want to see how people will react to this album but I already have enough ideas for a new album. For now I just want it to be a studio project but in case there will be a new album I'm thinking of doing some live performances with. We'll see...
SoT: What about Sun Caged? It's been so long since that amazing debut album came out. First three important members left, then you guys recruited a new singer. But it seems both you and Marcel are more focused on your solo projects these days.
Rob: That's what most people think but it's not really true. Since it took quite a while before we found a complete new line-up, we weren't able to play live anymore. Right now we're writing new material for the second album, making some pre-productions, doing just a few gigs to get warmed up a bit and we'll propably go back into the studio in February.
Rob van der Loo
SoT: The only other member on Characters beside you is drummer Roel van Helden. I am quite impressed by his timing and interesting jazz fills. Is Roel involved in any other bands?
Rob: Roel is a very good drummer with a lot of discipline; he studies jazz at the conservatory in Tilburg. Yes, besides Sun Caged he also plays with a Dutch metal band called Delphian.
SoT: What in your opinion are some of the year's best prog releases? What have you been listening to as of late?
Rob: To be honest I don't listen to prog rock/metal that much... These days I listen to many kinds of music but I'm mostly focused on rock. Right now I'm having a kinda "back to the roots" period which means I'm listening a bit more to late 60's and 70's rock music.
SoT: What are your plans for the near future? Any gigs or >tours coming up? Have you already decided on what label you're going to release the second Sun Caged album?
Rob: Oh, I have loads of plans but it takes a lot to make them come true so
as soon as there are any concrete plans you can check it out at
www.robvanderloo.com or www.suncaged.com - right now we only have a few try-out gigs. We'll be touring again as soon as the Sun Caged album is finished. You can also check this on our sites. The second album will probably be released by Lion Music again.