BRIAN: How hard is to create an album outside of the "big label" system?
SIMON: It's not as hard as you might believe. There are a number of great indie prog labels out there right now who are willing to give bands they believe in the chance to grow at their own pace (similar to the ethic behind Tony Stratton Smith's Charisma label back in the 1970s). David Robinson who runs our label "Festival Records" is committed to searching out the very best in UK progressive talent and our new album wouldn't have been anywhere near as good if it hadn't been for his belief and enthusiasm in our music.
BRIAN: Talk us through some of the problems you've had in getting this album finalised.
SIMON: Well the main problem was time (it took three years to make). The devil is in the detail and this was the first time we'd attempted combine so many different musical elements together at one time. You need to pay lots of attention to the little things or it ends up sounding terrible.
BRIAN: How rewarding is it to receive the only 9/10 rating Classic Rock magazine have ever given a progressive rock release?
SIMON: It's very rewarding and a massive compliment if I'm being honest. You always want people to like your music but you should never expect such a positive reaction by right. You have to earn it.
BRIAN: Spoken word sections form a big part of your aesthetic. Was this a conscious choice ahead of time or did the material lend itself to this approach?
SIMON: The spoken word sections are a big part of Tinyfish's musical identity but the transition of Robert Ramsay from lyricist to stage performer developed very much by accident.
Before we began playing our first live shows back in 2007, he suggested at one of the rehearsals that he'd like to narrate the opening section of the song "Motorville" on stage with us. We thought was an interesting idea and so we set up an extra microphone at the gig and let him strut his stuff. It became a regular part of the set but it wasn't until he started wearing all his strange stage costumes that we realised the full potential of his presence alongside the rest of us. I remember him walking on stage for the first time dressed in his army uniform for the song "Fly Like Bird" and the moment the crowd saw him, they went absolutely wild! He's very much like our Brian Eno but using words rather than synthesizers to attain that 'out there' feel.
Naturally, for this album, there is a strong spoken narrative (similar to Jeff Wayne's "War Of The Worlds") so Robert's role in the band has increased considerably as it was his task to forge a coherent storyline for people to follow. Today he's an integral part of the Tinyfish live show and people actually turn up now to see that weird guy who dresses up in mad outfits and delivers those spooky monologues.
BRIAN: "The Big Red Spark" is apparently based on a dream you had. Was it a one-off dream, or did you do the 'dream journal' thing, logging dreams over a period of time?
SIMON: It was a one off dream that came bouncing into my head fully formed (I must have been eating too much cheese the previous evening). When I woke up afterwards, I thought about it quietly over breakfast then phoned Robert to tell him about it. I specifically remember the doomsday machine from the dream being called "The Big Red Spark" although I have no idea at all where my subconscious dragged that name up from.
BRIAN: How did dream and (subsequent) album collide?
SIMON: I blame Robert! When I called him that morning, I thought I was just telling him about a strange nightmare I'd had but the tale really caught his imagination and he started to flesh out a story based upon it. In doing so, he pointed out that many of the demos we had made at the time could be linked together using the story behind the dream and from that moment, the entire album as a musical concept was born.
BRIAN: Talk us through the technology, the trials and the tribulations of the 'DIY' approach to making an album.
SIMON: The first album was recorded using a small Pro Tools system I'd set up in my loft. We just hauled all the gear up there and layered the tracks as we went. For this album, we were after a much bigger sound which meant using outside studios for the recording of the drums, some of the production and all of the mixing and mastering.
BRIAN: How collaborative an experience is it?
SIMON: Very. Robert and I might create a lot of the initial material but they don't really become Tinyfish songs until Jim, Paul and Leon get their hands on them. We also chose the old 70's technique of including a lot of the new material in our live set so that the songs evolved over time in front of an audience. That helped a lot in shaping both the sounds we used and the arrangements. We have no fear of bootleggers yet!
BRIAN: Are you all full-time musicians or do you have 'day jobs'?
SIMON: All of us are semi pro musicians. Jim crews for Marillion and is a graphic designer when he's not working with us, Paul has returned to further education and studies martial arts, Leon is part of the touring production of the Buddy Holly Story, Robert is a software engineer and web designer, I am a brain surgeon, a fighter pilot and have won the Tour de France for the last three years running. I am also a terrible liar.
BRIAN: Which do you prefer – recording or playing live? And why?
SIMON: Right now I love playing live as it's the most fun you can possibly have with your clothes on but I can see a day when things might change. The reason behind this is that I suffer from a hearing condition called tinnitus which began after I was attacked one night at a train station (a bottle was smashed over my head). At the moment, I am still able to play live without it causing too many problems but I suspect that one day in the future, Tinyfish could become a studio only project if my condition were to deteriorate.
BRIAN: What do you make of the current prog scene?
SIMON: It's a very exciting time to be a prog musician or a fan of the genre, especially in the UK where many people in the media are starting to pick up upon progressive music once more. The cynic in me says that certain elements may be building it up to knock it back down but I'd love to be wrong on that count.
BRIAN: Who are you listening to at the moment?
SIMON: I'm a big fan of the Scandinavian/Nordic prog scene such as bands like Moon Safari, Wobbler, Karmakanic, Anti-Depressive Delivery, White Willow, Opeth etc. Any band who can use chord progressions and harmony intelligently will always attract my attention. Echolyn are bloody marvellous in that respect and I'll snap up any new music they release.
BRIAN: Last album you bought?
SIMON: Johan Johannsen – "And In The Endless Pause There Came The Sound Of Bees".
BRIAN: And the first?
SIMON: The first album was "Out Of The Blue" by ELO and was a get well present from my parents after I had broken both of my arms when I was 11 years old. I still love it to this day. The first album I ever bought with my own money was Peter Gabriel's "3".
BRIAN: Best recent gig seen?
SIMON: Transatlantic at the Shepherd's Bush Empire in West London. I wasn't a fan of their new album "The Whirlwind" until I saw them play it live. They blew me away with their energy and their ability to communicate with the crowd. I bloody love that record now.
BRIAN: Best gig ever?
SIMON: Godspeed You! Black Emperor at the Cat Club in Bordeaux, France about 6 or 7 years ago; walking into the venue was like stepping into a David Lynch movie. It was a large run down warehouse on the docks, filled with cigar smoke and some of the strangest looking people I had ever seen in my life. There were no stage lights as such except for a guy with three old film projectors sitting on a large ledge above the crowd, projecting random films onto the band as they played.
BRIAN: Biggest prog influences?
SIMON: I tend to prefer guitar orientated prog such as King Crimson, Rush, Cardiacs and Pink Floyd but very rarely do these influences shine through in the material I write for Tinyfish. I grew up listening to IQ, Pendragon, Marillion etc as those were the bands gigging heavily when I was a teenager. For my generation in the UK, they became our Genesis and Yes because most of us were very poor students and we couldn't afford the ticket price to see the big 70's bands play stadiums and arenas. I came to love the 70s prog acts like Van der Graaf Generator, Gentle Giant and England much later in my adulthood and they were a revelation to me. It was prog but like nothing I'd encountered before.
BRIAN: Biggest other influences?
SIMON: "XTC" - no other band has had a bigger influence upon my writing and playing than these lads from Swindon. I'd been listening to them on and off since 1978 but from the moment I heard the album "Skylarking" back in 1986, I was hooked for life.
BRIAN: Thanks ever so much for your time Simon. And thanks for the new CD booklet (I spilled lucozade on mine in the car).
Postscript: As I type, Summer's End has been and gone. Tinyfish were great, despite a few technical gremlins and the new material sounded excellent. Expect a review of the whole thing soon.
Interview for DPRP by
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