Islington Academy, London on an October evening. I’m here to meet Symphony X. With me is my gigging accomplice for the evening, from work, Bill Sharman.
At time of arrival who I will be talking to is still unknown… will it be Sir Russell Allen, Michael Romeo or will it be one of the other guys, Michael Le Pond, Michael Pinnella or Jason Rullo?? While we wait in the catacombs of the venue.. Sir Russell appears and stands in the corner playing with his iPod, various roadcrew members wander too and fro until one turns up with a bag of Nando’s chicken.. at this stage Russell pipes up…. ‘Your not eating more of that shit (laughing)’…
I ask Rory (Tour Manager) where the loo is and get a completely blank look… Oh I forgot Americans don’t use/know that word doh!!…’sorry I mean where’s the toilet?’… as I quickly correct my terminology… Ah! Now he understands.
I return to find Michael Romeo standing in a doorway waiting for… yep you guessed it… me!! We shake hands (oh! and yes I did wash my hands!!) and take a pugh in a little side room for the interview.
So we meet Michael Romeo, the head honcho and song writer of Symphony X and spend 30 minutes chatting about the new album, the band, their artwork, touring and birthdays!!!… there is even mention of Britney Spears!!!
Thanks to Michael Romeo for taking the time out to speak to DPRP’S Phil Chelmsford
Phil: Hey Michael.. great to meet you.. I’m Phil from Dutch Progressive Rock Pages (MR – cool) and so just to kick off… How’s the tour going?
Michael: It’s good.. you know.. what can you say… the same ole same ole…. (laughing)..
Actually it’s been really good, the album I guess is doing well so we are seeing some more people and different places and that kinda thing.. so yeah it’s been really good.
Phil: How the European audiences looking after you?
Michael: Yeah great! Always great..
Phil: do you find much of a difference between European and North American audiences
Michael: They are all a little different but in each country, or even continent, there is a little difference.. maybe in South America they are real crazy, but then we are like from New York so the New York crowds are ‘fucking’ crazy too. So every place, country or even continent has similarities but for me if everybody is having a good time if they are a bit mellow or fucking crazy… that’s cool. Plus as long as we are having a good time that’s cool.
Phil: In New York… do you have a particular larger following being your home town?
Michael: We do pretty good there. It’s a home town kinda show so its usually nice venues.. we usually play the Best Buy Theatre (http://bestbuytheater.com) which is a nice venue with a good capacity. We do well on the west coast too (California)
Phil: New York and California being the biggest markets in the US anyway I guess
Michael: Yeah Yeah.. definitely
Phil: In the US, rock music (or whatever sub genre, metal, Prog, AOR etc) used to be absolutely huge. My impression is that is now not so much the case
Michael: Britney Spears and that whole kind of pop thing, rap and that kinda shit…all that is so huge.. Its in your face all the time.
Phil: Well let’s talk about the new album ‘Iconoclast’. Can you tell our DPRP readers a bit about the album and the thinking behind it?
Michael: It’s not really a concept album like in the sense of a story.. Just like ‘Paradise Lost’ wasn’t either . We tried to find, and especially for me with the writing process, an idea of the direction and sound of the record or whatever.. so with Paradise Lost we decided, early on, to do this (John) Milton thing, good and evil, we knew the music would be darker so I think it helps when we have a goal.. you know what I mean? We fiqure out that this album is going to be ‘like this’ so lets make it like that. Then with ‘Iconoclast’ we were trying to find some kind of topic, some kind of an idea and the ‘Man & Machine’ came up as an idea.. and I’m like a big film dude so everything to me is always related to movies. When we did the Odyssey I was thinking about Lord of the Rings, and this fantasy type thing, then we did Paradise Lost and I was thinking of movies like The Exorcist or The Omen and stuff along those lines.. good and evil etc etc… So for this album it was ‘Man v Machine’ that would be good.. so I was thinking of The Matrix, Terminator etc. So musically in my head that’s how I thought of it.
Michael: Usually we do early on but this time there were a couple of ideas we were throwing around and we weren’t really sure but I went ahead and started writing anyway .. coming up with some basic riffs, song ideas and melodies. I maybe had 3 songs or pretty good sketches of songs before that idea was solidified and once the idea came out we thought ‘yeah that would be really cool’. Everything then went from there and I revisited those earlier songs and just integrated some of the things that made it this ‘Machine theme’ like some of the keyboard sounds or maybe a more mechanical texture as opposed to big strings or something. Making it a little more edgy with some more distortion on things like percussion and stuff like that. So even went back and made even the guitar a little edgier and some of the dirty guitar made it abrasive.
So that’s how it goes with this album, really no different , we were just trying to find ‘The Theme’ that defines what the music is going to be. For me it was.. ok Machines… so it must be relentless, abrasive and heavy. As far as the sound it’s really dense and the keyboard stuff or any orchestral stuff we would normally do has been replaced by something more synthetic. So once we had that theme we just worked within that idea and it turned out however it turned out.
Phil: Your last 2 albums (Iconoclast and Paradise Lost) the music seems to have got a lot heavier from what came before. Was that a conscious decision or is it you write what you write and take it from there.
Michael: Well even on the Odyssey we were starting to be like that in places and we have always had songs before, here and there, that have been pretty heavy but on Paradise Lost it became more evident. Part of that was probably me… I remember when we was talking about doing Paradise Lost it was going to be darker and heavier just from the subject matter… so it was ok the guitar riff has got to be dark and mean .. I thought about when I was younger and the new Sabbath or Priest album was out and you heard that very first riff and I thought ‘yeah that is an inspiring thing’. So then I thought lets just make the whole record like that with a lot of riffs and big choruses and it just became what it became. It was a little bit of a conscious thing but also with Iconoclast with the man and machine theme it needed to be relentless and heavy. It was kinda the same with Paradise Lost but that still has some piano and more progressive interludes.
Phil: I have been listening to the last 4 albums over the last couple of weeks . If you play V (Five) and then Iconoclast immediately after there is a huge difference (not saying that’s a bad thing)
Michael: I think the production is a big thing and the sound of everything too… I mean the last two albums have been using this guy Hans Bogren and he is a friggin awesome mix engineer, that has helped too, and made it that much more in your face. Even on the V record there are some heavy riffs but the production on that is more open and not in your face. Then came the Odyssey our sound started to go move the way of the last two albums… so we thought.. that’s cool lets do that… but who’s to say what the next album will be, it maybe something completely different. Who the hell knows as we like to mix it up a little bit.
Phil: Well what I can say (and this term has been levelled at Dream Theater) is that it makes you predictably unpredictable… which keeps listeners on their toes. As a musician though you must want to try and do different things
Michael: We are a metal band, progressive rock band, symphonic rock band all rolled into one and within those confines you can do so much. If you did the same thing on every album it’s not only boring for listeners its boring for us. For instance during the writing or recording of any of the songs maybe I’ll have an idea, record it on a demo, and when I see everyone we try it out and its like ‘fuck yeah’ lets keep this and go more with this etc. It’s definitely the same perspective for us too…if it’s the same stuff and the same shit you can’t get anyone excited about it
Phil: Well you do the core of the writing and Russell the lyrics, correct?
Michael: Usually…. The last couple of albums, being more riff driven, more guitar, heavy.. that kind of thing… I will spend a couple of months putting the basic song ideas together and I will try to dress them up to sound like a good representation of what they will be. I’ll play with the drum machine, I play a little keyboards so I do enough just so the guys know what I’m aiming at… Plus I have been with these guys for so long I sort have an idea of what they might do or want to do. So it’s just a rough thing for them to work from. Everybody then has a listen through, maybe make some changes and make their part their own. Then we will start recording and putting the songs together, maybe me and Russ will get together for a couple of weeks and go through some lyrics, try different melody ideas, rearrange choruses and so on. It’s not a defined process but the main part is me getting the rough mix sorted with the basic stuff to work from. When we are recording we often try new things, experiment a little and get it how we want it to be.
Phil: The band come to your studio to record I understand? (The Dungeon as its known)
Michael: Yeah , yeah.. which makes it easier to make music as we have the time to do what we want. So we don’t have to worry about the time (actually the time is a whole other thing – laughing) but mainly we don’t have to worry about the money. It takes time, though, because we give a shit, we want it to be the best it can be. So we all about trying different ideas, different sounds, even different microphone techniques.. whatever it takes.
Phil: I spoke to another artist, who has his own studio, he says it’s a double edge sword sometimes. It saves you money but at the same time, because you have the time, you can end up using too much time.
Michael: That’s also true… but we are at the point now when we know when to let it go. It still takes us a lot of time but in fact it wasn’t actually that long with this album. The thing that makes it look longer between releases is that I can’t write while we’re touring. I tried it but I can’t do it.. I need to be in the right environment and frame of mind. I think that’s the same with everybody in the band. When you’re touring your rushing from here to there, always on the move, trying to relax when you can (Phil: Plus people like me interrupting your time with interviews.. both laughing) – Yeah all that stuff going on… so I just find it too hard to concentrate on writing music. It becomes too disjointed.
Michael: It can change although usually it’s not too far off . The basic skeleton of the song is usually there or there abouts, if the skeleton wasn’t right we would have already probably fixed it . There are times where one of the other guys might come in and say ‘hey what about this in this part’ or something like that and I’d say yeah that’s fucking great… it may be the same kind of idea but better. For example I can play keyboards OK, but obviously not as good as Michael Pinnella, and he might often suggest something which we think is awesome. The same applies to the bass and drums….. Everybody!
Just having that original song idea is what has to be strong first, there is no point in trying to fix a song that isn’t right to start off with. When the original idea is sent around the guys all come back with their own ideas so it’s a constant flowing process but the original theme has to be strong first.
Phil: Iconoclast… the name…. I must admit we (turning to Bill who attended the gig with me) thought it was a made up word until I looked into it further. (An iconoclast is someone who performs iconoclasm — destruction of religious symbols)
Michael: Yep!! It’s a real word… Iconoclast was the title of the song before it was the title of the album. It was trying to demonstrate how machines have almost demolished certain beliefs the way we were all used to living. Everything has been ripped down and rebuilt…
Phil: Almost like a virtual Iconoclasm…..
Michael: I like that.. that’s good… Anyway the word sounded good, even though it does have a more religious definition to it, but the idea of what we want to portray is similar with tearing down the way people live and rebuilding it around technology. So we thought… yeah that’s a fancy word.. lets go with it (all laughing)
Phil: Of course Iconoclast is where the word Icon comes from of which many people in your position are hailed as.
Michael: Maybe not us… (smiles) J
Phil: I’m sure there are people that do… (we met one on the way in wanting his guitar scratch plate signed by MR himself). I want to talk about reactions to Iconoclast. On your own website forum there have been some mixed opinions about the album and it seems most of the criticism has come from staunch Proggers, where as the metal community love it
Michael: I remember that with Paradise Lost too… but there are things happening in the music that may not be so apparent on first or second listen.. for example some of these riffs are not quite as simple as they seem. The progressive influences are more subtle.
Phil: At the end of the day though does it really matter? I consider myself a Prog fan, a metal fan, a classic rock fan… Ultimately a music fan.
Michael: Yeah that’s right…. At the end of the day we just try to come up with shit that we think is cool. The last two albums, by nature of their subject matter, are darker and therefore heavier. You know you can’t make everybody happy but I have had people say they didn’t like the album at first but on re-listening realise, that although heavier, it still has a lot of progressive stuff going on in there
Phil: Having said what we just said… the positive side of the coin must be having a foot in both the Metal and Prog genre camps, good for your fan base as you are potentially tapping into two sets of fans.
Michael: Absolutely… I see kids coming to our gigs that are metal fans and I see some of the longer term fans that I guess are Prog fans. Either way we have to change otherwise it’s not progressive (Phil: Exactly)… and let’s face it who knows what the next record will be as I write based on my influences. My influences are the likes of Sabbath, Priest but also bands like Rush, ELP, Kansas so as each album starts to take formation it could go either way.
Phil: Also you don’t want to end up being like a clone of those bands… you want Symphony X to sound like Symphony X
Michael: Exactly.. we will just do our thing. We appreciate our fans and hopefully what we do, we do for them . We spend so much time getting this stuff right, I mean its not like we are rolling in money or anything, we care about the music and want to give the fans something different and unique. Unfortunately you are going to get people who think one album is better than the other but that’s OK… as people will like what they like.
Phil: This next question you must be sick of being asked… but it’s got to be done. What are the chances of getting a Symphony X DVD?
Michael: Well it’s always something that comes up. For us it’s like anything we do… we have to do it the right way. We don’t want to produce a DVD just for the sake of producing a DVD… Hopefully now, though, we may have some extra money to invest in a stage show to make it something special. We don’t want to just record any gig somewhere… that’s not what we do. We want to do something special for a DVD release.
Phil: I saw an interview with Russell where he suggested that doing a DVD with a full blown Orchestra would be cool. Maybe performing the Odyssey etc??
Michael: That could be cool too… even though a lot of money but that’s the kind of idea of what we might try to do. We want to do something really great. So if it happens great… if not… there are a million clips of us live on You Tube as everyone now days has a friggin camera on their phone (laughing)
Phil: Fans can make their own DVD (laughing)….
Let’s talk about your record label. You are now signed with Nuclear Blast.. how’s that relationship been and was it a change out of necessity or a change you thought was what the band needed?
Michael: It’s been great… Previously we were with Inside Out for many albums before this but then there were some financial things going on etc etc. So with Iconoclast we were looking for something different and Nuclear Blast came in (amongst many other offers we had) and they seemed genuinely interested in the band and we liked what they had to offer. Since we have been with them we have seen some markets, where we hadn’t maybe done so good before, where more people have been coming to shows than before. So yeah they have really been helping us out.
Phil: Are there any other markets or countries where you still want to or are trying to get your foot in the door? Russia for example is supposed to be a good nut to crack.
Michael: I hear India too…. I have heard there are good things going on there. I think in the future we will try to tap into that a little bit where ever we can.
But for now.. the album came out over the summer and we have been touring to support it so it feels like we have been on the road forever. We have been to South America, North America, Europe… for the last album we were in China.
Now Australia now that’s somewhere we would like to hit.
Phil: I want to touch on the album artwork. The last two album covers have been by movie concept artist Warren Flanagan. My colleague here (turns to Bill)… his first experience of Symphony X was actually the artwork on Paradise Lost
Bill: I had never seen or heard Symphony X before I saw you supporting Dream Theater at Wembley, London in Oct 2007. I saw a ‘Paradise Lost’ T shirt before I’d even heard any music, bought one and of course since have become a fan.
Michael: That’s an awesome story… We met Warren while we were working on Paradise Lost. We were looking for someone to do the cover and he contacted us saying he was a fan of the band and he done all this movie stuff. We said ‘well maybe.. send us some stuff and we’ll take a look’ so he sent some stuff and it was just killer, it was awesome. So I started talking to him at this point, of course me being a big movie fan and that is what he does, we immediately clicked. So he asked what we were doing and asked about Paradise Lost. I told him it was this thing with Milton, good vs evil, but it’s not a concept album and it doesn’t mention god or the devil etc, its just vague. So just based on that he started coming up with all this crazy stuff and the cover we got. It was the same with Iconoclast we just spoke for barely 30 seconds, I told him it was man vs machine etc. He said ’like the Matrix, Terminator sort of idea’ I said yeah that’s it…. That was it… he just started putting together ideas.
Phil: It’s just a shame that the artwork does not get the attention that it used too with vinyl.
Michael: Yeah I agree… you don’t have the nice big album cover like the old days… but there you go.
Phil: Well that’s just about it then…one last thing which is my parting shot for all my interviews and a simple bit of trivia. Do you know who you share your birthday with (6th March)… mainly other well know musicians or other famous people?
Michael: I might know but I really don’t recall or remember…. (as he sits up with interest)
Phil: Well there is one person in particular I think you will be honoured to share a birthday with…
Michael: Ok… Who?
Phil: Dave Gilmour…
Michael: Ohh Really!!!!… no shit!! Wow!! That’s friggin awesome (looking decidingly pleased)
Phil: You also share it with Kiki Dee (once it was explained she sang ‘Don’t go breaking my Heart’ with Sir Elton he knew who she was) also Wes Montgomery (jazz guitarist) (MR: Wow!! Yeah yeah I know who he is) and Shaquille O’Neal (Basketball player, actor)
Michael: Oh wow!! That’s so cool….
Phil: well I have a list here for everyone in the band
Michael: ..can I have a copy of that…..
Phil: Of course…. Actually you nearly all share birthdays with rock icons…… with one exception…
Russell Allen (19th July) – Brian May
Michael Le Pond (17th Feb) – Billie Joe Armstrong (Green Day)
Jason Rullo (17 July) – Geezer Butler
Odd one out
Michael Pinnella (29th Aug) – Michael Jackson
Michael: Wow!!! I’m going to share that around with the guys… Thanks… Pinnella is going to get made fun off for sharing his with Michael Jackson (laughing)
Phil: Well thanks for your time and we are really looking forward to the gig
The gig itself was great… where songs form Iconoclast and Paradise Lost take up a very large amount of the set. Great musicianship, outstanding vocals from Sir Russell and an extremely entertaining evening from a band on the metal fringes of Prog. What I liked though is that they were professional enough to keep the sound quality good and well balanced (not something that can be levelled at most bands with a metal edge where volume usually supersedes sound quality). Even Damien Wilson was standing at the bar at the back of the venue watching on to one of very few singers he himself can’t match.
Symphony X might not be your bag if you are a traditional ‘proggy’, or not keen on the metal influence, but they are a superb band of very talented musicians with music that, although can be heavy, still remains well and truly on the Prog Radar.
Set List: Iconoclast, The End of Innocence, Dehumanized, Bastards of the Machine, Electric Messiah, When all is Lost, Children of a faceless God, Heretic, Inferno (Unleash the Fire), Of Sins and Shadows, Encore: Eve of Seduction, Serpent’s Kiss, Set the World on Fire (The Lie of Lies) – Joined on stage by DGM (support band)