DPRP's Geoff Feakes speaks with Sean Timms from Unitopia about their latest release 'The Garden'
An album that commanded my attention and a good deal of listening time in the latter part of 2008 was the superb double CD ‘The Garden’ from Australian progressive rock outfit Unitopia. The band has generated a lot of interest amongst the DPRP staff and readership so an interview seemed to be an obvious step. Not surprisingly the DPRP budget didn’t run to a visit to the land down under so my exchanges with keyboardist, guitarist, producer and songwriter Sean Timms was conducted via the ever resourceful internet.
Sean, you and Mark Trueack (vocalist and co-songwriter) met through a mutual friend in 1996 and found you had similar interests and musical tastes; can you talk about how that came about and how the partnership developed?
After our friend had introduced us to one another, we caught up over a meal and a few beers and discovered many similarities, not only in music, but in our sense of humour, our movie and TV tastes and our joy for life and concern for the environment. As soon as I heard Mark sing, I knew that we had to start working together. A date was made for Mark to come over to my studio and immediately we began working on the track which was to become 'Take Good Care'. This formulated into an energetic and exciting song writing partnership that culminated in the completion of our debut album 'More Than A Dream'. Mark and I would get together sporadically over the next few years. This was due to high levels of commitment each of us had to our own jobs and other areas. This is why ‘More Than a Dream’ took so long to complete. (9 years!)
How did it turn into a fully fledged band?
During this time Mark and I realised that this was getting much bigger than the two of us, so we decided to expand the project into a band. We gathered together the cream of Adelaide’s musical talent into what we now know as Unitopia.
You are both responsible for the song writing and production, how does the process come together?
Mark and I write most of the material. Our guitarist Matt has collaborated with us on 2 songs, ‘Love Never Ends’ written for my wedding to my lovely wife Amanda, and ‘When I’m Down’. In the mid 90’s while Mark was living in Sydney, he wrote a couple of tracks with local producer Matt Coxhead. One of the tracks was ‘This Life’ which I always liked, but we rewrote the chorus, changed the key and tempo and a few of the words to bring it into the Unitopia style. Matt’s heard the different version and he’s very pleased! Apart from those 3 songs, all the rest were written by Mark and I. As far as inspiration from other artists, it can be anything. A chord progression, a sound, a lyrical topic or even a general philosophy. We don’t think about it too much, we just get into the studio and write.
Mark and I write all of the lyrics for Unitopia. We come at things from a different angle to each other. Mark will sing and improvise lyrics that come straight from the heart whereas I will spend a lot of time on the lyrics and craft them as well as I can. It’s very important for me to be as poetic as possible.
Inspiration for Mark, comes from matters of the heart, whereas my inspiration comes from reading, observing and life experience. The main themes of our lyrics do vary, but in general we like to state a very positive attitude in them. There is way too much negativity around us, so we like to keep things positive, even when all looks bleak, there can still be a light at the end of the tunnel. Some listeners may think that’s a bit un-cool or simplistic. That’s OK, but it won’t change our approach to our lyric writing. We want the listener to be uplifted by our music and writing positive lyrics is one way to do that.
We don’t really follow a set process for our writing. It’s all about whatever feels right at the time and it also depends on who has come up with the idea in the first place. Mark might have a line or two of lyrics or a concept going around in his head. He will sing it to me and I will start putting music to it. At other times, I might have a chord progression or a piece of music that I have written and Mark will start improvising a lyric and melody over the top of it. Sometimes we just ‘jam’ in the studio and see what we come up with. More rarely, one or the other of us will write a pretty well complete song that they will present to the other.
Listening to ‘The Garden’ album I detect several styles including pop, rock, prog, classical, jazz and world music. Where (and who) do your influences come from?
Mark and I have similar music tastes in a lot of areas. We both like Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Pink Floyd, Yes, Moody Blues, Marillion, Alan Parsons and a lot of the newer prog bands out there such as The Flower Kings, Spock’s Beard, Porcupine Tree and Frost. Mark also likes John Martyn, Kate Bush and the more electronic side of music such as Jean Michel Jarre and Vangelis. I tend to prefer the singer - songwriters such as James Taylor, Al Stewart and Paul Simon as well as some of the big 80’s stadium acts such as Heart, Toto and Ambrosia. I also love listening to Prefab Sprout, Alison Krauss, Shawn Colvin and Nicolette Larson.
When I heard the finale to the title track ‘The Garden’ I was strongly reminded of Genesis’ ‘Supper’s Ready’, was that a conscious influence?
We’ve had that a bit! No…it was definitely not a conscious influence, but upon reflection, I can hear what you mean. I have always really loved that section in ‘Supper’s Ready. It still gives me goose bumps every time I hear it. I wanted to achieve that same effect with the closing of ‘The Garden’ and maybe subconsciously, I drew from that piece a little. I’ll be more careful next time! He he… I guess it’s more of our ‘tip of the hat’ to a true prog rock masterpiece! We’re still working on what could become ours, although I hope we’re getting closer!
The album is described as a concept, can you talk about that?
Overall, the lyrical theme behind ‘The Garden’ is one of hope coming from despair. For a more detailed breakdown of the meaning behind the lyrics, I’ve included a synopsis for each song.
The opening song of disk 1 ‘One Day’ is almost a prelude to ‘The Garden’ as it sets the premise for the rest of the album about the journey of self discovery this person takes to bring themselves back from the brink of despair and self destruction. Alone and without hope, he muses on the futility of life and contemplates ending it all and the effect it will have on those around him.
The title track, ‘The Garden’, is Unitopia’s longest piece to date running at 22 and a half minutes. The song began as an idea Sean had after seeing advertising for the Fringe Festival’s ‘Garden of Unearthly Delights’ and his fascination with Hieronymus Bosch’s painting ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’. Using both for inspiration, he began to write lyrics that depicted a strange, fanciful and wondrous place where one could go and totally forget their inhibitions, indulge their every whim and fulfil their every desire. Exploring this idea further, Sean wanted to convey the notion that sometimes the things that feel pleasurable are not always good for you. Thus a constant struggle is waged between the pleasures of life and looking after one’s mind, body, soul and emotions. This struggle is what Mark and Sean focused on during the writing of the rest of the piece. The eventual outcome is that the catalyst of the story finally overcomes the ‘dragons’ that prevent him from claiming his future and enters a realm of peace, grace and freedom. The story is allegorical and uses concrete forms to convey the more abstract and spiritual notions of the song.
‘Angeliqua’ is about the ‘one that got away’. Mark came up with an idea where he had the experience, as many people do, of seeing an old friend from the past and wondering what it would be like if they were connected now. It’s also a bit of a ghost story. Angeliqua is an other-worldly character that weaves a spell over whomever she meets and then is gone…
‘Here I Am’ is our ‘pop song’! The song came out of a piece of music that Sean wrote for one of his clients. He liked it so much that he played it to Mark who came up with the lyric idea. Most of the lyrics were written while Mark was in hospital undergoing surgery for a serious throat condition. Many emotions flooded his mind as he contemplated whether the operation would be a success or possibly leave him without a singing voice. Fortunately, not only was the operation successful but Mark’s voice has improved! It’s a life cycle in a 3 minute song, almost moth-like in its simplicity and brevity. It also has a touch of regret. Whereas some people live life to the full, others try only to avoid death. This song is hopefully a wake up call to those people who don’t live life to the fullest.
‘Amelia’s Dream’ and ‘I Wish I Could Fly’. These pieces are all about the experience of being that free that you feel like you are flying. Mark told Sean about a dream he had and wanted to put into words. He wrote down what he saw in the dream and this became the platform of the song. Not a care in the world, you soar to even greater heights than you thought possible. The melody and the orchestral intro were adapted from a piece that Sean wrote for the Botanical Gardens of Adelaide. It features part of a speech given by the great female aviator Amelia Earhart. It’s also a song about being balanced and grounded. It’s no good having your head in the clouds constantly, but it’s no good to never look up and see what’s out there either!
‘Inside the Power’ is all about the freedom of riding the waves on a surf board. The nature of the sea, it’s power and ferocity and man’s attempt to subdue and control it. It’s a story of a lone surfer who wants to catch the perfect wave.
Our second epic, ‘Journey’s Friend’ opens the 2nd CD. It’s about what lies beyond this mortal coil. Sean started writing the lyric when a work colleague passed away very suddenly. It prompted the question, “what happens to us when we die?” The answer is that nobody really knows and all we have to go on is what our faith would have us believe. It deals with trust issues as well. In a fallen world, it’s sometimes hard to trust that what some people say is the truth. Therefore we are left to either blindly trust or go through life wondering what the truth really is. This piece talks of the’ friend’ that is there to help us on this journey of life. It portrays him as a protector, fellow traveller, unconditional ally and the only person we can rely on other than ourselves. We leave the listener to decide who this person might be.
‘Give and Take’. If we all learnt to see things from other people's point of view and stopped being so selfish, the world would be a much better place. Un-forgiveness is the cause of many a problem that could be solved if only we could learn to give the gift of forgiveness and accept it in return. Bitterness takes root in people’s lives and it won’t allow them to move on from where they are to where they could be. Imagine, to paraphrase Lennon, a world without war, religious and racial intolerance, divorce, hunger etc… That’s the world Unitopia wish to live in!
‘When I’m Down’. Mark wrote the lyrics about 4 years ago and had a great chorus/melody and wanted to try writing with Matt Williams, Unitopia’s brilliant guitarist, so the two went about the business of making a really well crafted song. The song is about when things go wrong and how one can get a little down and how you might reach out to someone to get the comfort you need.
‘This Life’ was written when Mark was living in Sydney during the mid 90’s with local producer Matt Coxhead and extensively re-worked by Sean for the new CD. A video clip of the song has been directed by up and coming film maker Joshua Sutherland and has been edited in the same facility where Scott Hicks (Shine, Hearts in Atlantis, Snow Falling on Cedars) and Greg McLean (Wolf Creek, Rogue) edit their films. The clip has been shot entirely on HD and looks amazing!
‘Love Never Ends’ is all about that special kind of ‘once in a lifetime’ love that two people can have for one another. It features the talented Kiki Celarik sharing vocals with Mark. Sean was looking for something special to help celebrate his marriage to Amanda, so Matt arranged and wrote the melody idea to complement Mark’s wonderful lyric.
‘So Far Away’ and ‘Don’t Give Up Love’. Aahhh ... long distance relationships seldom work out. It’s always good to try though, cause you never know. This song’s arrangement is a tip of the hat to the great Brian Wilson. His ear for harmonies and chord structures and progressions is amazing! He’s a true genius! It’s also got some Tony Banks influence there in the synth solo. Sean always loved the Genesis tracks ‘Firth of Fifth’ and’ Inside and Out’. This is his tribute to a wonderful composer and keyboardist.
‘321’ began as a song about feeling ‘trapped’ by a situation or circumstance and ‘Trapped’ was the working title for a while. After reading an account of the two trapped Beaconsfield miners, Mark changed the direction of the lyrics to reflect the thoughts and feelings of the men who were trapped underground for 321 hours or nearly two weeks. Mark then sought out Brant Webb, one of the two miners and talked to him about the song. While in Adelaide for the Clipsal 500 V8 motor sport carnival, Brant and Todd Russell sang backing vocals on the choruses. The recording was covered by 60 Minutes as part of the one year anniversary of their release. Following an invitation from the West Tamar Council, Unitopia travelled to Beaconsfield, Tasmania in May, 2007 to perform at the memorial concert on the 1st anniversary of their release. Brant and Todd again sang backup vocals live on stage. Unitopia also released ‘321’ as a single at that time with part proceeds going to the Webb/Russell foundation. The event was extensively covered by the national media due to the high profile of the miner’s rescue and the tour was made into a mini documentary by Spadge Productions titled ‘Inside Unitopia’ which is viewable on YouTube and Unitopia’s MySpace and Facebook pages.
How would you say this album differs from your 2005 debut ‘More Than A Dream’?
Our first CD, ‘More Than a Dream’ took us 9 years to finish because Mark and I could only get together very sporadically. It’s more of a project album than a band effort. The CD is a bit less cohesive than The Garden due to the fact that we were still experimenting with our sound, we didn’t have a set roster of musicians (we just used anyone who was around at the time) and we weren’t setting out to write a progressive rock album. I think we’ve matured lyrically, thematically and musically quite a bit since we started working on ‘More Than a Dream’. We have a lot more of an idea now as to what we want to write and how we want to convey our music and message. Even though MTAD was very well received, I feel that ‘The Garden’ is a much better effort from us musically and lyrically. That being said, there are still some very strong songs on MTAD that we’re very proud of. ‘Justify’, ‘Still Here’, the title track and ‘Lives Go ‘Round’ (which is the opening track on the latest CPR3 compilation release) to name a few.
I would describe the new album ‘The Garden’ as a more coherent, mature album, more firmly placed in the progressive rock genre. It is far more lyrically and musically intricate than ‘More Than a Dream’. With our 1st CD, Mark and I were learning about one another, what we liked, what we didn’t and what we wanted to get out of the Unitopia partnership. For the most part, it was a labour of love…something we did in our infrequent spare time. We weren’t necessarily recording an album…just writing a collection of songs for our own enjoyment. This collection became ‘More Than a Dream’ and it was only after it was released and we saw all the positive responses we got from all around the world that we thought “Maybe we’re on to something here!” Don’t get me wrong…we were very passionate about the project, but didn’t quite see how much a part of our lives it was going to become. As we wrote and recorded the songs, we gathered people to play on the tracks as they were available. Consequently on MTAD there are 2 drummers, 3 bass players, 2 guitarists, numerous session backing singers as well as a host of others.
We wanted the new material to be a lot more cohesive and we also wanted the players who played on the CD to be a part of the live band as well, so Mark and I set about recruiting the best possible players to be involved in the new project. This became Unitopia the band. We now had a vehicle for playing the Unitopia music live as well as in the studio. The players who play on the CD are the ones we tour with! Also… ‘The Garden’ was written, recorded, mixed and mastered in 3 years. This means that there is a lot more consistency between the tracks. Mark and I were also getting together a lot more frequently so the pace of the whole process has been increased.
During the latter stages of MTAD and the beginning of ‘The Garden’, I went through a marriage
break-up. This gave me a lot of free time to devote to Unitopia as well as a lot of emotional material from which to draw when writing lyrics.
Whereas MTAD was recorded over 8 years in 3 different studios, ‘The Garden’ was finished in one studio in 3 years.
These days, Mark and I have a very clear idea where we want Unitopia to go and this attitude reflects in our songs and their arrangements.
Ed Unitsky’s artwork for ‘The Garden’ is quite stunning and earlier this year I talked to Guy Manning about his working relationship with Ed, how did he become involved with your project?
Simple! We asked him! Mark actually found Ed’s MySpace page and suggested I have a look with the possible view of getting him to work on the cover art for the new CD. We had been getting some ideas from local designers, but weren’t happy with the resulting ideas. We briefed Ed and he very quickly came up with some amazing designs that were headed in exactly the right direction. Ed seems to have this super power whereby he knows exactly what to do to capture the essence of the music. I can’t thank him enough He’s a genius and in Aussie speak a ‘dead set legend and top bloke!’
Strings play an important part in your sound, who is responsible for the orchestral arrangements?
I do all the string arrangements on Logic, my sequencing program then print them out for the string players. Carolyn Lam, a good friend of mine and my 1st call violinist, puts together the string section and then we record the parts live in my studio.
How did the current deal with InsideOut come about?
We had gone with Unicorn Records for our 1st CD and they were interested in taking on ‘The Garden’, as was ProgRock Records, but we felt we needed a stronger presence in the marketplace. Living in Australia, we’re a bit on the remote side from the rest of the world…certainly a long way away from where most prog is created in Europe and North America. Therefore, our options for touring, promotional visits etc… are limited. We needed a label that would give us instant credibility and that’s where InsideOut came in. We sent them a copy of the rough mixes…they liked what they heard and the rest is history!
Does the band operate as a live unit as well as a recording one?
Yes we do although the opportunities to play in our home town are very limited.
How would you describe the current music scene in Australia and what are attitudes there like towards your blend of progressive rock?
The current music scene in Australia is very healthy. We’ve got some great talent here. Unfortunately, progressive rock is all but forgotten here. There are a few prog metal bands, but there’s nothing here that comes close stylistically to what we do. Prog is almost a dirty word here. For instance, we sent out a press release to all the print, TV and radio media informing them of the fact that we had just been signed to the world’s largest progressive rock label for a 3 album deal (the only Australian band to do so) and we got zero response!
Thank you for taking timeout to talk to the DPRP.
Thank you for the interview and allowing your readers to find out a little more about our music. Greatly appreciated!!!!