Interview with Rob Reed
DPRP’s Alison Henderson
Best-known as the creator and mastermind behind Welsh prog crowd-pleasers Magenta, Rob Reed assembled one of the most illustrious casts of performers to appear in his musical project Kompendium. Steve Hackett, John Mitchell, Nick Beggs, Francis Dunnery, Nick Barrett and Mel Collins are just a handful of the who’s who of prog playing on the Kompendium album Beneath The Waves which was released at the end of 2012. To find out more about how he persuaded these glittering prog alumni to get involved, DPRP’s Alison Henderson traveled up to the Rhondda Valley in Wales to meet Rob at his recording studios and had a four hour discussion about all things prog, including the interesting choice of footwear of some of his guest musicians while recording their parts and his three and a half minutes of musical perfection.
Alison Henderson: Rob, you have been an incredibly busy man. How have you managed to fit in both Kompendium activities with Magenta?
Rob Reed: It has been absolutely bonkers! It is all finished now after four years of making the thing. I have lived, slept and breathed it, quite honestly. With Magenta, there is always pressure to release albums at certain times, but there was never a time constraint with Kompendium; in fact, not many people knew about it. But I finished the mix in 5.1 like I do with all my albums then add the DVD, videos and promos myself. In fact I do everything myself, but I do enjoy as I am a bit of a control freak. As everything is so expensive these days, if anything does go wrong then I have to live with it being my own fault. It is always a learning curve. The reason it has taken so long is because I wanted it to be the best it can possibly be by the time the album is finished. It can drive you made if you start hearing any mistakes but it is all about making choices and wishing you had not done certain things at the last minute. In fact, at the end of this one, I had to drop a couple of tracks.
I was able to revisit it and sort it out which was something of a luxury compared to usual recording commitments. In fact now, it is one of the first albums I have made which I can listen to and think there is nothing I can change on it or how I could have written it better.
Alison Henderson: That must give you tremendous satisfaction it having achieved that.
Rob Reed: But it is not all about me. One of the biggest things I set out to do is not for it to be a Rob Reed album. One of the things I enjoy the most about it is being able to sit back and listen to everyone else’s performances. My job was to write and produce the contributions from all the other musicians.
Alison Henderson: So how did you go about making it?
Rob Reed: It was interesting! I would much prefer to record someone face to face rather than them sending me their pieces online as there is always that horrible moment when you hear something and have to go back to explain exactly what you wanted. There were exceptions like Francis Dunnery who is now based in the USA who sent me his part via the internet and it was such a relief when it came because it was just what I was looking for. Steve Hackett also did his via the internet.
Alison Henderson: I recall seeing a clip on YouTube of Nick Beggs playing the Chapman stick with you a couple of years ago. Was he one of the first musicians you enlisted?
Rob Reed: Yes, we managed to get a face to face session at Jakko Jakszyk’s studio which is close to where he lives. I had not planned on him using the stick instead of a normal bass but oh my God, he completely transformed that track through the way he played. He is such a lovely guy too who has always got time for everyone. You never know how some people are going to be when they turn up to record. But what nobody knows is that he turned up in a pair of huge frog slippers which he was wearing throughout that session. But he is very down to earth and it is stunning to see the other bands with whom he is now playing. I never saw him as a prog player when he started but he was at the Prog Awards recently and looking amazing as well as being a great player.
Alison Henderson: Let us go back to when you decided you were going to do an album like Beneath The Waves. What was the starting point?
Rob Reed: Three or four years ago, I was chatting to a few people who were moaning about the state of the music industry and that no-one was any longer mad enough to attempt a big album in the style of say, Mike Oldfield, Peter Gabriel or Kate Bush who could make whatever album they liked, chucking everything into the melting pot to see what they could come up with. For example, Hounds of Love’s side two is a 25 minute epic with dark piano and choir. So I decided to take all these styles and make an album using all the best session musicians. It was a case of boxing clever and it became like a giant game of chess especially selling people the idea of what I was doing. I remember hearing Rick Wakeman using the English Chamber Choir on some of his albums so I had that already in my head which was an easy part of the process. I also knew the sound I wanted was Celtic meets classical meets rock using Uilleann pipes and opera singers. I wanted to write it in a very Celtic way with my brother Steve doing all the lyrics. So we bashed out the ideas and came up with a story which I suppose is rather depressing as it is really hard to write happy music, but this one does have a happy ending. So it started with my howling along to a drum machine and piano, so I had to find a voice. I am absolutely obsessive about great vocals as so much prog is ruined by the vocals. So many people make albums that are so guilty of bad vocal performances. Tina Booth is a b****y great singer otherwise she would not be in Magenta. I had a list of potential singers but right at the top was Steve Balsamo with whom I had worked on the ChimpanA Project so I knew his voice was amazing with its own sonic landscape. He had not done anything like this since Jesus Christ Superstar though he had his own band The Storys. You should hear his performance on Gethsemane which is absolutely stunning so I told him I wanted that voice across the whole album otherwise it is a waste of a voice. His schedule too is so bonkers we only had him for two days. I sat him down in a chair in the studio and give him eight or nine lines. His vocal performance was such, I was physically in tears. The bar had been raised on the whole project as a result of this. I was totally gobsmacked. As he sang along to a drum machine and piano, I was wondering where that voice came from? I thought his voice would break because he really does deliver the emotion. So that was first base for the demo and from the quality of that vocal, we had been able to open the door.
Alison Henderson: That is some start and I have to agree with you that his voice is awesome on the album. Where next?
Rob Reed: I wanted a great drummer and funnily enough, Gavin Harrison was not on my original list as I thought his style was too heavy for this album. I did have a few other drummers in mind but I got to check him out and again, I was gobsmacked as I saw a completely different side to his drumming. As soon as I saw him, I thought I have got to get this guy so I sent him an email, waited for him to get back to me and I was really scared when the email from him arrived but he said he loved it and wanted to be on it. He put me on to Jakko Jakszyk who I had seen play with Level 42. I met him and thought again, what a lovely guy, completely down to earth. He became a very pivotal person on the album for his enthusiasm and also his little black book. He was the oracle for just about everyone who played and he had stories about all of them. He said to me “Who do you want and what do you need?” I said I wanted a pedal steel guitarist and he got me B J Cole, then Nick Beggs and when I said saxophone, he put me on to Mel Collins with whom I found myself in London, whereas B J Cole did it on the internet. Then I said I wanted someone to do the string arrangements and he suggested Dave Stewart who I only remembered for doing It’s My Party with Barbara Gaskin. So I went on line to find out more about him as I only knew him as Dave Stewart, keyboard player. But he was a really really lovely guy who was really amazed I was funding it all myself. He got really involved and came up with some stunning arrangements. I spent a day with him in London doing the strings. It was stunning as we had the cream of all the string players in London in the studio. Never in a million years did I think we could do it but they got it on the first take. The English Chamber Choir was next and they said they would love to do it. They were really helpful and wanted to go to the Abbey Road studios to record. It was a bonkers moment and they were fantastic because they really wanted it to work.
Alison Henderson: So far, so good then?
Rob Reed: I decided I wanted Steve Hackett and Francis Dunnery. Steve Hackett was on my wish list and it was so bizarre the way it came about. Nick Beggs was playing with him at the time so I went to see him as I thought it might be worth my while asking my hero. I spoke to Nick there who gave me his management’s email. But about an hour later after he had obviously spoken to Steve, he got back to me to say he would like to play. I had been dreading phoning him but he was lovely too. He said “Send me the track as I would love to do it.” Of course, it came back and it was brilliant. He was so helpful and came down to Real World to shoot the video. I was hanging on to his every word and I love the fact, as with all of them, that he did it with complete integrity. I think he is so well-respected and I was so happy he did it. This was probably the highlight for me. Then I was speaking to Francis Dunnery who is another massive hero of mine. There was one track on which there was no guitar solo, so I wrote 20 bars of music and sent it to him, saying I hope it works. He came back and it was exactly what the track, Mercy of the Sea, needed because it was so understated. For me, it is one of the best moments on the album because it is a lovely guitar solo.There are so many other people on the album – Nick Barrett, John Mitchell, Christina Booth, Chris Fry and Troy Donockley who did all the Uilleann pipes. He was on Magenta’s Metamorphosis and he had just made his own solo album (The Madness of Crowds). So I decided it was no holds barred on the Celtic side to this album. I phoned him and said you are going to be a massive Celtic cornerstone. He was really helpful and is one of the nicest guys in prog.
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Alison Henderson: So that was the rock and Celtic elements sorted out. Where next?
Rob Reed: I wanted some opera singers. I knew the sound I wanted so got two soloists. Through my contacts, I had the pick of the crop and the two I chose – Rhys Meirion and Shan Cothi – are the best within their field. I stood in on the classical session and they did it in one take. Mind you, there is a very fine line you have to draw musically in ensuring such singers do not end up going cheesy and into a bad place. The very last part – the role of Lily – went to Angharad Brinn, who is a schoolteacher, but what a voice. When we shot the video with Steve Hackett, he asked her “What do you do”. He was amazed when she told him. Her Celtic voice is very much complemented by Steve Balsamo’s voice.
Alison Henderson: So that was the album all finally recorded and mixed?
Rob Reed: Yes, but one other thing I wanted to do was to return to the way people used to listen to music. There was a time when you used to put on Tubular Bells through your headphones for the entire hour it lasts. Those days seem now to be gone as most people listen in the car or while working on their computer. The genie seems to be back in the bottle now. But this album needs to be listened to in its entirety and I guarantee the listener will be rewarded. The issue currently is that there is saturation of the prog market at the moment which affects both sides. Some people are churning it out which does affect the industry and also the fans that do not have enough time to listen to everything that comes out. Some people make all theirs on a computer and I cannot believe how much stuff is currently coming out as a result. Everybody seems to be fighting for a piece of attention these days. But unless you listen to Beneath the Waves five times, you are not going to get anything out of it. Even better, try to listen to it in 5.1 through which it becomes a completely different album. I say that because there are certain thought processes taking place within it and it was planned like a military campaign throughout.
Alison Henderson: It sounds as though you have been working flat out on it.
Rob Reed: There was so much stuff to do for this. As well as recording the music, we had to shoot videos and that included sessions on deserted beaches at 2am in the morning. All the time, I had to think outside the box as it was very much a DIY project, but I wanted to give it the properties of a Hollywood film even down to the artwork. I loved the cover to War of the Worlds so I contacted Geoff Taylor, the artist who created it and he came up with three paintings which we have used.
Alison Henderson: What about a live performance in due course?
Rob Reed: I have already looked into it. It will probably involve four to five keyboard players as well as an orchestra and choir. I am putting out some feelers as there are some potential venues in Cardiff which are purpose-built concert halls. But the album needed to come out first.
Alison Henderson: So you are not completely convinced about everything in prog currently?
Rob Reed: Prog has to be music from the heart and not the kind of music that turns it into a dirty word. From the outset, I always said that Magenta is a prog band even down to putting a sticker on it which says “This is a prog album”. Some bands just sound like Genesis or Yes, but bands should now be concentrating on new versions which incorporate a reinterpretation of the sounds which culminate in something new and fresh. I am mindful you are never going to please everyone as some like the widdles and others, melody. We have done festivals in America where they do not seem to like melody so much.
Alison Henderson: What is happening with Magenta currently?
Rob Reed: The sixth album is all written. The drums are done and there are six songs recorded, with the artwork also completed. It is now getting a theme and it should be out in February/March next year. It is going back very much to what we did on Seven as there is a nice balance with some nice colours on it. We also be playing at Danfest in Leicester, England, on November 24.
Alison Henderson: I have seen you a couple of times this year and thought you were great. It looks like you have a settled line-up now.
Rob Reed: The stories I could tell you about previous band members! We held auditions for bass players a couple of years ago around the time that Steve Roberts, Godsticks’ drummer, said he would like a go and he was absolutely stunning. While we were still looking for a bass player, he mentioned Dan Nelson who was also in Godsticks. He came to audition and I knew immediately we had found our bass player. Both of them come from Cardiff which was also a great help.
Alison Henderson: What is your background?
Rob Reed: I have always been in music. I had piano lessons when I was seven and then I wanted to play in bands, but as I did not do the classical practice involved, I had to busk it a bit. Though I did not have the discipline, I developed the technique and know-how so got into TV music, and as an engineer and producer.
Alison Henderson: How do you combine all your musical activities and running your own record label?
Rob Reed: I deliberately set up my own record label because how many bands do you hear about that have been ripped off by theirs? I am a fan of the DIY approach and it is nice to have control over your own destiny. It comes from my experiences with Cyan, the band I was with in the 90s, when we were constantly guessing and wondering what was happening especially on the financial side. It was very soul-destroying when you were making albums then handing them over to the record company who might give you a quid now and again with you never knowing where the money had gone. And now the biggest threat is all this streaming through people like Spotify. I put a value on all the music I am involved with and I don’t want to give it away. This is one of the kisses of death on the music industry currently. People have got to learn to value it again instead of making it almost disposable as how else are people going to get paid? This is a bit of a mission of mine at the moment.
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Alison Henderson: And finally Rob. Who are your other musical heroes?
Rob Reed: Mike Oldfield is a huge hero of mine. I play him in the car all the time. I also love Jeff Lynne and Abba. I know Abba get a bit of a bad Press but Benny and Björn give me my favourite three and a half minutes of music in Dancing Queen in terms of both the melody and production. When I first heard it, I thought oh my God, this is perfection.
Alison Henderson: And on that high note, I must thank you Rob for taking the time out to talk to DPRP. It has been absolutely fascinating to get so many musical insights from you on both Kompendium and your many other projects.