Interview with Darran Charles & Steve Roberts
by DPRP’s Bob Mulvey & Jez Rowden
Prog has seen a steady resurgence of interest over the last couple of years, which has been helped in many ways by the emergence of fresh and innovative new bands. One such band are Godsticks who appeared unannounced in 2009 with their self-titled EP. A steady flow of positive reviews from around the globe inspired the band to follow up this EP with a full length album. Almost a year and half in the making, Spiral Vendetta arrived during the summer of 2010. Again a steady flow of positive reviews prompted DPRP to contact the band to talk about the new album and their immediate plans for the future…
BOB: First off congratulations on the new album…
DARRAN: Thanks. We got there in the end!
BOB: I’ve seen several positive reviews (DPRP’s included). Are you pleased with how the album has been received so far?
DARRAN: Very pleased. I was asked recently whether we enjoyed receiving positive reviews and I explained that it’s sort of similar to introducing another artist’s music to a friend or relative, in that you get a kick out of someone appreciating the same music as yourself. Like an affirmation that you have some musical taste so to speak!
STEVE: It has been very favourably reviewed all around so far which is great!
BOB: So any sign of a Record Label?
DARRAN: We were very close to signing with a reputable label prior to the album release but it didn’t work out. I think that these days record companies are looking for a complete package i.e. a product identity, proven sales record, large fan base etc. They’re not willing to invest in potential anymore only in fairly-well established products.
I’m sure this is related to the current economic climate and the ever-changing mechanics of the music industry, but we don’t help ourselves by being difficult to pigeonhole, so from a marketing perspective at least I can sort of understand their unwillingness to invest. We’re not willing to compromise though, so if we have to remain independent, then so be it.
STEVE: Although, saying that we have had Steve Vai’s ‘Digital Nations’ label release our EP. They are also going to release the track ‘The Offer Still Stands’ from the album as a digital single download.
BOB: That’s a positive move. OK, before we move on – burning question for me – tell us about the origins of the band name?
DARRAN: My wife is actually responsible for coming up with the name. I believe Godsticks are Moari implements of worship.
BOB: (Smiles). When I searched the interenet that was the main reference I found. OK, let’s backtrack a bit if we may. The EP hit the streets early in 2009 to positive reviews. Then strangely there seemed to be a mass departure from the band. First Steve, albeit short lived and then Jason. After such a long time together as a band the timing seemed a little strange. Did something trigger this?
DARRAN: Well, I’d imagine that from the outside that we look like a pretty dysfunctional unit, but to be honest it’s all quite normal for Godsticks! If I were to go into detail about the problems and obstacles we have faced since forming back in 2005, I think that even the most dedicated musician would say ‘why don’t you just call it a day’!
Steve hiatus lasted all of 3 weeks. He was going through some personal issues at the time and wanted a little time off. I was impatient to get on with the new album and decided to look for someone else. It was a stupid decision borne out of my chronic lack of patience. After I few weeks I belatedly came to realise that there would be no-one else even remotely as quirky AND technical out there as Steve. I’m a huge fan of his playing and he’s an integral part of the band’s sound so thankfully the situation resolved itself.
Jason’s leaving had been on the cards for a while. For some time he had expressed a desire to perform more fusion-inspired instrumental music but I’m unable to write that way, as I don’t consciously set out to write in any particular style. In the end Jason knew that his unhappiness was affecting the band and that it would be best for everyone if he left. I strongly disagreed with him at the time, but in retrospect he was entirely correct, and he doesn’t regret his decision one bit. At the moment he’s recording some great and strange music with American guitarist Dann Glenn.
STEVE: I suppose technically I didn’t leave; we just stopped rehearsing/writing for a while!
BOB: So how did the future of Godsticks look to you then?
DARRAN: Well, within an hour of Jason telling me he was leaving I contacted Bryan Beller. This immediate reaction is probably another sign of my impatience!
JEZ: Are you still on good terms with Jason?
DARRAN: Unfortunately, yes! We actually still speak on a daily basis. We still have loads in common musically and I still love his playing; plus we’re both miserable and like nothing more than a good moan!
BOB: So Steve returned to the fold and the search is on for a replacement for Jason? Can you tell us a little about this and how as Bryan Beller isn’t a native Welshman (as far as I know ;0) – can you tell us how you hooked up with him?
DARRAN: Well, I quickly found out he wasn’t a Welshman as he couldn’t understand a word I was saying on the phone!! I’ve mentioned in the past that we believed that there were only 2 players whose style would suit our music: one was Jason and the other Bryan Beller. I’d been a fan of Bryan’s playing ever since I discovered Mike Keneally about 7 years ago.
JEZ: Did Bryan Beller suggest anything musical and were there any actual meet-ups?
DARRAN: Well, all the tracks were written in their entirety by the time we contacted Bryan. Firstly, we sent him the original demos and then a few weeks later sent cleaner-sounding pre-production demos. Steve wrote out the musical charts and I provided extensive notes about each track. We talked on the phone a few times and he had about 10 weeks to get these tracks into his head before he recorded his parts. He recorded his parts over the course of 3 days with his producer. He told us that it usually takes him 1 day to record an album, so I don’t know what that says about us!
STEVE: Even though I was extremely confident that Bryan would do a great job, there was still the tiny possibility that he wouldn’t deliver what we were looking for. That feeling soon disappeared when he sent through the first track for approval, ‘Put seven in bold’. We were absolutely blown away!
DARRAN: As for Bryan suggesting anything musical: well I personally I have always viewed a good bassline as being a vital ingredient of our songs –along with the drums it provides that much needed context. There were a few tracks that Bryan did in one take like ‘Withdrawn..’ and ‘Traverse’ but a lot of the tracks were reworked until we got exactly what we were looking for. It was an absolute pleasure to work with Bryan and he is simply the most professional musician I have ever worked with.
STEVE: And his sense of timing and phrasing are phenomenal.
BOB: You and Steve rehearse twice a week and you’ve formed a tight unit. So how did it feel having the bass parts arrive without ever having rehearsed together.
STEVE: It wasn’t a hinderance in any way to be honest; we just approach the writing and recording process in a slightly different way.
BOB: Did Steve modify any of his parts to sit in more comfortably in with Bryan Beller’s parts?
DARRAN: Thinking about it, no. That’s probably testament to just how well Bryan locked in with Steve – albeit virtually!
STEVE: I had spoken with Bryan about certain parts in the songs that he may want to look out for regarding the rhythm section but as you can hear, he did an amazing job…!
JEZ: So how much planning goes into preparing the music before you go into the studio?
DARRAN: Everything was written and extensively rehearsed before we even set foot into the studio. I think there was nothing new written or added in the studio (solos included) aside from a few vocal harmonies.
STEVE: Even what Darran had for breakfast was planned! Ha! Yes, I suggested a keyboard solo on ‘The Continuation of Livid’ which was improvised. Actually both the ‘Livid’ solo and the seque in ‘Withdrawn’ were first takes I think!
BOB: Following on from Jez’s question. The band’s songs have a very distinct sound and fairly defined structures, so I gather they are not the fruits of endless jam sessions?
DARRAN: There is probably nothing on the album that is the result of a jam, to be honest. The way we usually write is that I will bring in a short idea, get Steve to put a beat behind it, record the drums on a portable recorder, which I then take home and begin developing. Each track takes about 12 months to write and we constantly refine and rework parts that are not quite happening. Jason once said that a song has to ‘prove itself’ to us before we’re satisfied: although that might sound pretentious and vague, there’s a lot of truth to it. Besides, if a song has been with you for 12 months and you still enjoy listening to it, then something must be right!
Although the majority of the composition is done at home, the hard work begins in rehearsal. For instance ‘put seven in bold’ didn’t really work that well until Steve came up the strange drum pattern in the first verse; that is probably my favorite part on the album. Playing ‘Norman’ and ‘Unnerving Allure’ in rehearsal was also extremely challenging but the songs don’t really take their natural form until they’re rehearsed in their entirety. The biggest challenge is to make the transitions within each song as seamless as possible.
STEVE: That’s it, making those changes seem natural when played needs a bit of playing in. The intro section of ‘Bold’ is a 4/4 pattern with the hands played over the 7/8 pattern that follows the bass/keyboard part, played with the bass drum.
DARRAN: Steve is also a part-time mathematician, I think!
BOB: So are you guys gear nuts?
DARRAN: I’m actually a recovering gear-aholic!
STEVE: More gear is inevitable I’m afraid!
BOB: For example I need this guitar for this bit and a different one for the next chord ;0)?
DARRAN: As sad as that sounds, it’s probably true! Before we went into the studio I knew exactly guitars I wanted to use for each part of every song. For instance, I wanted an ‘airy’ type sound for the lead melody line in ‘The continuation of livid’ and for that I used my Heritage 355. I knew I wanted to use the Suhr on the middle pickup through Channel 2 on the Mk 5 for ‘R.R.R.’….etc. etc. Nothing was left to chance as we couldn’t afford to be unprepared!
Most of the solo’s were recorded with my Fender Deluxe Strat. I ended up recording a few of the solos at home though, as I didn’t think I played them particularly well in the studio. The only amp I used on the album was a Mesa Boogie Mk 5, but it’s basically 8 amps in one! I loves that amp.
STEVE: The drum set-up is quite specific for the songs too, with 2 sets of hihats, a secondary 10″ snare drum, etc. I use Pearl drums and a mix of TRX, Sabian, UFIP and Paiste cymbals.
JEZ: Who are your guitar influences as you have developed a style that is very much your own?
DARRAN: I suppose my lead playing is mainly influenced by vocalists. When I was younger I spent a long time in transcribing vocal parts and learning how to transpose those various nuances and inflections to the guitar. Steve Vai was a big influence of mine growing up too, and there’s a guy called Shaun Baxter who is also a huge influence and probably my favourite guitar player.
Rhythm-wise I’m probably more influenced by piano than guitar but guitar players like Eric Johnson, who has a huge chord vocabulary, are also inspirational. I also studied part-time at the Guitar Institute in London, and that really exposed me to various different guitar styles; some of the teachers there were incredible players and very inspirational.
BOB: Which drummers have most influenced you Steve?
STEVE: Well, that list would be rather a long one but I would have to mention Carl Palmer, Pierre Moerlen, Dave Weckl, Vinnie Colaiuta, Gary Husband, Virgil Donati, Buddy Rich, Dennis Chambers, Cozy Powell, Bill Bruford, Gary Novak, Brian Davison, Jon Christensen, etc..
BOB: You both play keyboards on the album. Again how much time do you spend choosing the sounds you use?
STEVE: This time around we made a conscious effort to look for new sounds. Although I love the sound of a piano, we thought that if I were listening to an album where the only keyboard sound was a piano, it could prove a little tiresome.
DARRAN: Soon after finishing the EP I invested in a Yamaha Motif. It has thousands of different sounds but we were drawn to 4 in particular, that really inspired us. I’m pretty sure we chose the right sounds for each song.
BOB: Can I ask how involved you got with mixing of the tracks?
DARRAN: We literally sat behind Joe and told him where we wanted everything in the mix. Jason was also a great help at this time as I used to send him various mixes asking for notes, which were always forthcoming.
STEVE: Joe Gibb has to be given all the credit for making everything sound clean and distinguished though. The guy is an absolute perfectionist and we can’t ever imagine working with anyone else. We had loads of fun in the studio too!
BOB: And with the final mixdown?
DARRAN: Joe must have done 5 final mix-downs and 3 different mastered versions before he settled on the final version.
STEVE: It drove us nuts at the time but ultimately he was spot-on. He really pushed us in the studio making us do take after take until HE was satisfied! He gave Darran a particularly hard time, which was fun for me!
BOB: OK. The album’s finished. Were you happy with the end result?
DARRAN: 100%, yes. I don’t know if other musicians do it, but I love listening back to our stuff and I’m proud of what we accomplished.
STEVE: Definitely, and there are quite a few of those ‘1st takes’ on there too!
BOB: If you had your time again – would there be any aspect of the album you would change?
DARRAN: In all sincerity, no. As mentioned earlier, all our songs live with us for quite some time so we’re constantly refining and reworking them until they’re perfect (to our ears, anyway). I’ve said it before but one of the most important things for us is to make songs that are interesting from start to finish.
JEZ: On the distinctive album artwork, did you give Screamadelica any brief regarding this or does it just come from them and you choose something that reflects the music?
DARRAN: The only direction we give Chris (Maguire, Screamadelica) was to create something vibrant and that wouldn’t immediately give you a pre-conceived idea of the music contained within.
STEVE: The artwork is striking and made an immediate impact on me. I love it and the centre pages remind me of a more modern ‘Yes’ style cover ala Roger Dean.
BOB: The album’s out there – what’s the next step? Gigging?
DARRAN: Gigging, gigging, gigging, and more gigging! We enjoyed the few gigs we did last year and I think we played to the best of our ability at the time. However, there is a long way to go before we reach the standard we’re aiming for and we’ve learnt a hell of a lot from those few gigs.
From the few gigs we’ve done with this line-up we’ve taken a lot of positives and I have to admit I love being a 3-piece. Even though it can be sonically limiting, there’s a great chemistry between the 3 of us and hopefully that’s being translating to the audience.
STEVE: The band is now beginning to become roadworthy, which always takes a few gigs to settle into but it’s going well and sounding great!
JEZ: So are you trying to organize headline gigs or will it be a mixture of these and support slots? Would you do more festivals?
STEVE: At the moment I don’t think we have a big enough following to put on too many headline gigs so it’s mainly support slots or double bills. We’re lucky enough to be doing a few festivals over the next year though, including Progbury, The electric garden festival, and Gofest in Portugal.
DARRAN: We’re looking to play more in Europe, and would love to tour America too.
BOB: You recently supported Focus on one of their UK dates. Were people familiar with your music?
DARRAN: I’m not sure to be honest. We seem to provide a stark contrast to the bands we’ve supported, but I personally quite enjoy this – it makes for a better all round gig experience.
STEVE: The promoter was very happy. I think we surprised quite a few people who were there as the music does tend to stand out a bit from what you would normally hear. There were a few sales online as a result, I believe.
BOB: Did anyone come up afterwards and ask you about the band, the music and buy a copy of the album?
DARRAN: Strangely enough, we got a great response both during and after the show when supporting Wishbone Ash in Nottingham, but didn’t sell a single album at the gig: same at Progbury! However, in Portugal we sold quite a lot and it was one of the most enjoyable experiences we’ve had this year – it was the most eclectic line-up I’ve ever seen – from avant-garde jazz to solo violinists.
JEZ: What, if any, compromises have been necessary when playing live as a three piece?
STEVE: We try and minimize compromises as much as possible. There’s only one track at the moment that would be too difficult to perform live because of the amount of instruments used on the recording and that’s ‘Unnerving Allure’.
BOB: Yeah, there’s an awful lot going on in the studio tracks – I see this as being tricky to do live as a three piece.
STEVE: It is very challenging material but we’re disciplined, focused and rehearse very hard. Consequently we’re able to loosen up a little live and enjoy ourselves.
DARRAN: With this line-up I’ll be playing guitar/singing or playing piano/singing. Since finishing the album I’ve worked extremely hard trying to master the art of simulataneosly playing and singing. It’s very liberating being able to do this, and I think I’m improving with each gig. I didn’t particularly enjoy just singing and playing the odd solo on guitar, as I missed playing. Also I was never truly ‘warmed-up’ on the guitar during those gigs as a 4-piece.
BOB: Tell us a little about Dan (Nelson).
STEVE: Dan joined the band right after we’d finished recording our parts in the studio.
DARRAN: And some might say right after he’d finished puberty!!
STEVE: We auditioned him once and it was pretty obvious how talented he was. Even though he’s very young he plays with great maturity.
DARRAN: Those that have seen Dan live are shocked at just how good he is. I was never that good at his age; he makes me sick!
BOB: I believe Jason recommended him?
DARRAN: He’d met Jason a few times at gigs and they corresponded often via email. Jason once sent a link to a youtube video of Dan playing “Only When Provoked” and I remember being impressed not because he could play the track, but how he played it with such feel.
BOB: I’ve seen the footage – nice… Before we wind things up – can we talk on more generally? In recent times “prog rock” appears to have lost some of the stigma it has carried for many years. These days it seems almost to be the “in” thing to be prog. Are Godsticks happy to be under this trendy umbrella?
STEVE: Prog trendy? Not sure about that, ha! It has been notoriously difficult to pigeonhole our music but the obvious genre would have to be prog, I suppose. I’m not entirely sure that’s right, but until we forge ahead and create our very own genre, then so be it!!
DARRAN: It’s a difficult question to answer as we’re fairly new to the scene. I share an opinion that it’s probably through clever marketing that prog-rock gives the appearance of being trendy at the moment. It’s probably true that is has lost a bit of the stigma of late, but whether it’s more popular as a result I don’t know.
From our experiences, and again we’re still fairly new on the scene, it hasn’t really felt as vibrant as is often portrayed. There’s definitely a huge community on-line but from a UK perspective, the scene still feels relatively small. I was speaking to a known prog promoter recently who said that regardless of the media interest in the genre in the past few years, he wasn’t seeing any new faces at the gigs. He wasn’t saying that there haven’t been good crowds, more that they were the same loyal fans that have always supported Prog.
Also the meaning of prog seems to have changed over the years and it’s a much larger umbrella than it used to be, and a lot of bands that would usually be described as rock are now referred to as prog. That said, I think that it’s always up for debate as to what’s prog and what isn’t, and always makes for very entertaining discussion! Maybe that why there are so many subcategories like ‘neo-prog’,and ‘symphonic-prog’, etc. We’re also guilty of referring to ourselves as ‘prog-pop’!
In answer to the question though, we’re happy to reside in the prog category as this is the most logical fit for us. Progressive music fans (of which I am one) by their very nature have to be patient listeners, and our music definitely requires a patient ear as it can be either underwhelming or overwhelming on its first or even second listen.
BOB: Tell us about some of the music you listen to. Which bands first triggered your imagination?
DARRAN: Steve Vai’s ‘Flex-Able’ was probably my first musical ‘Eureka’ moment, and probably the album that influenced me that most. Through Steve Vai I discovered Frank Zappa and practically all the music I listen to today.
BOB: Yeah… I bought ‘Flex-Able’ when I first came out – strange but… yeah good. Oddly enough I came across Vai through Zappa – memory serves me I bought Them Or Us which came out around the same time as ‘Flex-Able’…
DARRAN: Prog-wise, the only prog band I ever really listened to was Yes. However, when the EP was being reviewed we were getting comparisons to bands like Gentle Giant, King Crimson, and Chick Corea etc etc. Consequently, over the last 2 years I’ve been buying many of these albums. Some of my favourites include ‘Red’ and ‘Disipline’ by King Crimson, which are hugely inspiring. The first time I listened to ‘Acquiring The Taste’ by Gentle Giant I was dumbfounded! I’d never heard anything like it – utterly unique and again, incredibly inspiring. Steely Dan’s polished harmonically-rich approach to song writing has also influenced us.
Then on the other hand – and here’s where I lose all prog-credibility – I love Rufus Wainwright and I don’t think a month goes by without listening to his music. I’ve also been going through Billy Joel’s back catalogue recently which I’m enjoying. I went through a big Stevie Wonder phase a few years back to, and ‘Songs In The Key Of Life’ is one of my favourite albums ever.
STEVE: I remember hearing ELP’s triple live album ‘WBMFTTSTNE’ when I was about 15 and it just blew me away! Still my favourite album: it had everything in it for me – rock, jazz, classical, solo piano, acoustic ballads and of course one of the best drum solos Palmer has ever recorded. They were on fire on that tour.
BOB: They sure were…
BOB: What albums have you bought recently?
DARRAN: ‘Songs For Lulu: All Days Are Nights’ by Rufus Wainwright, ‘Turnstiles’ by Billy Joel, ‘Disipline’ by King Crimson, ‘Romantic Warrior’ by Chick Corea, and ‘This Way Up’ by Pat Metheny.
STEVE: A recent buy for me has been Planet X’s Quantum… incredible
BOB: Great album – I love Donati’s playing, truly unique. On top of that Derek Sherinian and Allan Holdsworth…
BOB: What is currently in your CD player or iSomething?
STEVE: Listening to lots of Pat Metheny as always, Jay Oliver (keyboard player) is amazing and also lots of Emerson’s piano music.
DARRAN: Currently listening to Brand X ‘Moroccan Roll’ and ‘Poses’ by Rufus Wainwright.
BOB/JEZ: Guys it’s been a pleasure chatting to you both and we look forward to catching the band live – soon.
STEVE: Yes, we are working on filling up the gig book as we speak, keep checking the website for updates, cheers!
DARRAN: Cheers guys. Hope you’ll both make it to a gig soon.
BOB/JEZ: Thanks – a pleasure talking with you…