Cosmograf is a progressive rock project, which is the brainchild of Robin Armstrong, a multi-instrumentalist, musician and songwriter, who lives in Waterlooville, just outside Portsmouth in southern England. His third album, When Age Has Done Its Duty, has just been released, most of it recorded in Robin’s studio, The Trees, in his back garden.
DPRP’s Alison Henderson caught up with Robin over a pint in a pub to find out what was currently happening in the world of Cosmograf.
Robin, you must be delighted with the reaction that When Age Has Done Its Duty has been receiving from both the music media and prog lovers.
Absolutely, I am a bit shocked about how well it is going down. Albums one and two (Freed From Anguish and End of Ecclesia) got largely ignored – just one of those things – so I was agonising over making a decision over whether to put it out myself or through a record company. I sold about 40 to 50 copies on my own initial release but then Steve Thorne, one of the singers on the album, did a lot to promote it with F2 Records. Next thing I know, they have got back to say they really love it and wanted to know when it could be released. It is doing really well and so far, we have sold around 1,000 copies. This means we have doubled the sales on the two previous albums. There have been a few justified criticisms from people who think it is too retro- but I have deliberately tried to draw heavily on the 70s vibe which was such an incredible era for music.
This is your third concept album. Do you need to have a major theme in mind before you start writing?
Yes I do, but sometimes it is a struggle to come up with stuff. I might write a song and then it grows into a bigger theme, or I might wait to fit it into a current concept. The first one, Freed From Anguish, only got released digitally rather than on CD, so that is why I call it The Mysterious First Album. However, I am planning to rerelease it next year as an EP with four or five tracks all re-mastered and re-engineered. Its theme was all about someone going to war and how his experience reflects on his family. It is based on my Dad’s cousin who was on the D-Day beaches. Fortunately, he survived.
The End of Ecclesia was all about science and religion, but was not quite so rigid in its structure. It was much more a mix of styles because I was experimenting, taking time to find my way in music and develop my groove. But since the new album has come out, I have been deluged with emails about these two.
The other noticeable thing about this album is how an artist like yourself can draw on a huge pool of fellow musicians to assist you. You have a quite incredible cast on When Age Has Done Its Duty – Bob Dalton from It Bites; Simon Rogers and Steve Dunn from Also Eden; Steve Thorne and Lee Abraham from the Lee Abraham Band, Huw Lloyd-Jones from Unto Us and of course, Luke Machin, the man of the moment with The Tangent and Concrete Lake. How easy was it for you to assemble such a stellar cast?
Luke Machin is scary! When I was 23, I could barely play never mind produce such incredible music as he can. He really is good enough to be the next guitar hero. I do not know how long he will stay with The Tangent but he has a really big future ahead of him whatever he chooses to do.
I was particularly thinking too of Huw’s vocals on Memory Lost which was one of the most achingly beautiful performances of the year.
Huw Lloyd-Jones was amazing. It was so emotionally charged, so sad and he really made it his own.
How about the others? How did they get involved?
It was a complete accident and it all came about through Facebook, which I have to say has changed my life, as it got me in touch again with Steve Dunn. We went to school and formed our first band together, playing gigs at local pubs. Both of us forgot music for 10 years because of other commitments in our lives. But meeting up through Facebook has got the momentum going again especially when I found out he was with his amazing band Also Eden. It just ballooned from there! Lee was fantastic too and taught me a great deal about high level music production. Lee and I had completely different music influences, we discovered, but we were able to work together even though we were coming from totally different directions.
And Simon Rogers was also a huge part of it, to the extent of writing a song on it – and will be involved with future projects I hope. Rob Aubrey, who has worked with Big Big Train, the Flower Kings and Spocks Beard was also instrumental in mastering the album and providing a great deal of technical advice.
Who would you like to work with in the future?
Well the ultimate would have to be Steven Wilson. I guess we all dream of working with him. I would also love to get in Matt Stevens as he can come up with a really dramatic guitar riff. He can just grab a riff and turn it into a gigantic piece. Simon Godfrey of Tinyfish and Jem Godfrey of Frost* would also be on my wishlist, and of course Andy Tillison of the Tangent. He is such a brilliant raconteur and many kids wish we could have had a history teacher like him at school! Roine Stolt would be wonderful to work with and so would Damian Wilson who has the most incredible voice. Also Nick Beggs who I cannot believe has become such a fantastic bass player and Greg Spawton of Big Big Train. The list is endless.
What is your personal background in music? Which is your main instrument and how easy was it for you to learn to play your own “orchestra”?
It was difficult as it was a toss-up between guitar and keyboards. I started learning to play the guitar when I was 14 and I still have my classical guitar from those days. My Dad was into keyboards so I became really hands-on and enjoy writing on both. It was strange because you can become competent on guitar but suddenly, you can go no further on it. I left it alone for some time, but now I have come back, I am taking it quite seriously and getting much better I would like to think.
But my skill I believe is really on the song writing side. For that reason, I have always admired Sir Paul McCartney because he may not be the world’s greatest bass player but he writes the most incredible songs. And like me, he cannot read music!
Are there any plans for doing any live Cosmograf gigs?
I would love to but the practicalities would be difficult to resolve. I have to admit that I do not tend to be able to sing and play to the same level required to faithfully reproduce the songs from the album. So it would mean either asking Simon totake care of most of the guitar work and Steve Thorne to do the singing. Also, we all live in different parts of the country which would also be rather a challenge in fixing up rehearsals.
Maybe once a couple more albums are released, I might reconsider doing some live stuff.
It seems that prog musicians are still having to hold down day jobs to earn a living as well as raising a family. How much of a challenge does that present to you?
It is not too bad now I am out of the corporate world of work. I began a career in engineering when I was 20 and 19 years later, I was l running my own consultancy. But two years ago, I decided I did not want to do it any-more. So my hobby of restoring and selling vintage watches and timepieces became my job. This makes it far more flexible to fit in my music around it.
And how are your family coping with this new interest in your music?
My wife is very bemused over the furore and the reviews. Both my children Amy and Sam appeared on both albums. They think it is great I am getting so much attention, but unfortunately, they prefer The X-Factor to listening to what Dad is doing!
You are obviously influenced by the great bands of the 70s and modern day prog. Who do you listen to and what you think of the state of prog currently?
I think prog is in a brilliant place currently. I am an absolutely huge fan of Steven Wilson and I cannot believe how much he is taking on in terms of producing his own music and various projects as well as getting involved in the production of the reissues of classic albums such as the King Crimson and Jethro Tull back catalogues. It must have taken him about three years to make an album like Grace For Drowning. And he is one of those performers who can come out on stage and play acoustic versions of some of his great songs like Trains and Time Flies, and still send a shiver down your spine.
And I also really like what Big Big Train are doing, along with Opeth. Bands like Dream Theater are just a little too technical for me. I really do prefer the ones who have written fantastic songs.
I still cannot get my head around how much your voice sounds like Peter Hammill’s, especially on Bakelite Switch. Were you aware of this?
I really had not got back as far as Van der Graaf Generator so it has come as a complete surprise to discover the similarities. One of the reviews said I had “received pronunciation” which made me smile. It has taken me quite a long time to build up the confidence to sing but because this is my solo album, it was my duty to do so! I am after all a huge fan of Roger Waters, who, to me, is the best singer that cannot sing!
Going back to the album, there is a lot of nostalgia on it, especially Blacksmith’s Hammer, which reminds me of a modern day Lucky Man.
Yes, this is based on the childhood memories of seeing my great-uncle and before him my great grand-dad work in a forge in Shropshire. It definitely has a modern-sounding acoustic feel to it and is a very accessible song. In fact it is the one my Mum likes. Bob Dalton really liked it especially as it did not need to have anything flash drumwise on it.
The album is also full of sound effects – ticking clocks, brass bands, telephones ringing
I am really into putting different sounds on the songs as it helps to tell the story and convey the mood within it. This is no more than Pink Floyd did on many of their albums too. I think really, I am a frustrated film score writer so like putting in those extra bits. And I must own up – the idea for the video teaser we did of the album where we feature photographs of all the musicians taking part with their names on a old style television was pinched from a similar one Mystery did for One Among The Living except they used a radio instead of a TV. I thought it was a brilliant idea.
You seem to take a rather pessimistic view of life. This obviously shapes your music, so I am not going to tell you to start looking on the bright side of life.
I am, but I have used it to my advantage in the past being a “devil’s in the detail” type of person. This has enabled me to foresee problems before they happen. I do have a fairly dour outlook on life. As the main theme of the album would indicate, I am not too keen on growing old. There does not seem to be any joy in it. Sure, you might get more experience or knowledge, but I find it all very cruel and very disturbing even to the point of seeing my personal appearance change as I get older.
So I face life with a great deal of trepidation and the music acts as a great release for that. So yes, my glass is always half empty and I think the only happy songs I could ever write would be in a sarcastic way.
So we are all doomed?
Ha ha! I just seem to plan everything to the n-th degree as rather than living each day at a time, part of me thinks I am going to live forever. It is strange thinking that it was a funeral which prompted this album and got me thinking nostalgically. It was interesting watching my parents draw comfort from the fellowship of their church. I guess I am agnostic as I do not put my faith in a Supreme Being. Having said that, I was also fascinated by my namesake Neil Armstrong who I read somewhere took a long time coming to terms with what he had seen – looking at the Earth from the Moon. I can understand what an effect such an experience so immense could have on someone as you can never be the same person again after undergoing something like that. A Day OnThe Moon from The End of Ecclesia was basically a tribute to him.
Out of interest, how did Cosmograf get its name?
Again, it is down to my interest in timepieces namely the Rolex Cosmograph. So I changed the name a little and it was the nickname I used when I went on car online forums as I am also a bit of a petrolhead. It also has that element of time and space about it, which I also liked.
So are there any plans now for the fourth Cosmograf album?
I have got the bug now! So I will be working on the EP and I have already got some ideas for the next album, which I have been writing and scribbling down, then retiring to my studio, which is really a shed, but a soundproofed one at that. So, yes, there could well be another album out next year.
Thank you for your time, Robin, and we wait with interest what happens next for Cosmograf.
Official Website link: http://www.cosmograf.co.uk/
DPRP reviews of When Age Has Done Its Duty: http://www.dprp.net/reviews/201142.php#cosmograf