Interview with Robin Armstrong
DPRP’s Alison Henderson
Following the highly acclaimed album When Age Has Done Its Duty which came out in 2011, Robin Armstrong has been back in the studio to record the next Cosmograf album, The Man Left In Space. With the album just released, DPRP’s Alison Henderson caught up again with Robin to find out how he got the new album ready for lift-off with a little help from some very distinguished friends.
Alison Henderson: It’s lovely to see you have been back in the studio since we last spoke 15 months ago before When Age Has Done Its Duty was released. What is the story behind The Man Left In Space?
Robin Armstrong: Well, the theme is probably not so much about space but more about the human condition; really, the lengths we go to in pursuit of success. It’s set against the backdrop of a failed future space mission. I’ve been fascinated by space travel since I was very young, and revisited some of that recently through reading a lot about the 1960s space missions and the people who went on them. In some ways, the human aspect of these is even more fascinating than technical achievement itself. The accounts of the Apollo 11 crew in their race to the moon were particularly fascinating.
Alison Henderson: What were your conclusions?
Robin Armstrong: It was “Buzz” Aldrin who intrigued me the most. Although he was the second man on the moon – and earned his place in history as a result, for him, this outcome was a complete failure. It is probably because his father was such a hard taskmaster for whom there was no second best, so he seemed to feel he had let him down in some peculiar way. Later in his life, this manifested itself in his depression and alcoholism. There is something rather sad about someone who played such a huge part in changing history not being able to enjoy or be truly proud of his success. On the other hand, Armstrong was far more philosophical about the success of the mission to such a degree that he shunned publicity because he wanted to continue being an ordinary person. He became very reclusive but in the end, this led him to being revered more as an enigma. When he died last year (2012), I had just finished Michael Collins’ book that described in great detail the depth of characters of both Armstrong and Aldrin’s character. Although the album is in no way about him, I thought that Aldrin in particular was the living example of the concept of the album.
Alison Henderson: Why Aldrin over Armstrong?
Robin Armstrong: This notion that success can sometimes bring complete failure became a troubling thought for me. Aldrin was a first rate achiever in almost everything he did, but it lead him to complete failure. The album is really about how we strive for achievement and success and the failures that aspiration and achievement lead to. The space mission concept created the perfect vehicle for the story. Here, The Man Left In Space becomes a famous astronaut, and how was his fame rewarded? By him being sent alone on a doomed mission –effectively a one way journey, to save mankind. That is a very high price to pay for success if you think about it.
Alison Henderson: That’s a very deep message to convey through music. But I see you have assembled a stellar cast for this album.
Robin Armstrong: Yes, it has been very exciting to have so many of the current top musicians playing on The Man Left In Space. To get Nick D’Virgilio playing drums has been a real thrill and it’s been such a privilege to work and spend time with him. He has so much diversity to his playing that I used some of his out-takes from one of the tracks create another song, The Vacuum That I Fly Through on which guitarist Matt Stevens plays. Initially, we started with some simple chords that I played over the edited drums onto which Matt added the lead lines which I think give it real melancholic Radiohead sound. Greg Spawton from Big Big Train then came back with the most fantastic virtuoso bass part that fitted perfectly with Matt’s guitar. I am delighted that Dave Meros, bass player and Nick’s former band mate in Spock’s Beard has contributed too. I also have my long-time friend Steve Dunn along with Dave Ware also known from school days, and Lee Abraham makes a re-appearance as well. The guest guitarists are Luke Machin and Simon Rogers who were also on When Age Has Done Its Duty and both have made staggering contributions again. Luke performs a blinding solo on We Disconnect which really continues to show the virtuosity of his playing.
Alison Henderson: You used a narrator on the title track of When Age Has Done Its Duty. Will you be using any voices on this album?
Robin Armstrong: Very much so, in fact I have a whole cast this time! You were referring to Tom O’Bedlam as the narrator. He is back again but this time, he is on on a track called The Good Earth Behind Me during which he recites the lines of the poem High Flight. This was written by the American poet and pilot John Gillespie Magee Jnr who was killed aged 19 in a mid-air collision in 1941 over Lincolnshire, England, when flying a Spitfire.
Alison Henderson: Who else is appearing?
Robin Armstrong: I thought that it would be nice to include a line spoken by the Astronaut’s wife/ girlfriend on the title track for the album. I put out an appeal on Facebook and one of those to respond was Katharine Thompson who I thought was absolutely ideal for the role. Katharine’s ethereal voice comes in at the end of the title track and I have to say it reminds me of that dreamy spoken sequence in 10cc’s I’m Not In Love. The title track is really a love song, which is fairly unusual, I suppose in the prog genre. The astronaut in the piece suffers physically, mentally, spiritually and also reflects on his broken relationships in this song and another track We Disconnect, which is probably a more bitter reflection of when familiarity can breed contempt in a relationship. I think the title track has its roots in both 2001: A Space Odyssey and David Bowie’s Space Oddity in that it is about the extreme loneliness of being in space. Musically there is a strong Bowie-esque influence running through it and in fact, I went as far as playing a stylophone. Then there was the role as the voice of ‘Mission Control’ and again I turned to Facebook to help me find some suitable candidates. In the end, I chose two! The first is Prof Brad Birzer, who is an academic who works at a college in Michigan, USA and also a massive prog fan, who runs his own music blog Progarchy. Being such a fan of the music, he was thrilled with getting a small part on a prog rock album, and a story appeared in the college’s magazine about him getting the part. I also used Thomas Konsler who had the ideal voice for the mission engineer. I just thought his strong French accent was a perfect match for a sultry piano riff on the intro to When The Air Runs Out.
Alison Henderson: That is quite a cast. Is there anyone else?
Robin Armstrong: Yes, the final spoken part you will hear is from Robert Ramsay, who is Tinyfish’s legendary narrator. He is “The Voice on the Radio” again for the last track When The Air Runs Out. His contribution is a distant radio providing a lyrical accompaniment to the track, reciting a roll-call of famous names that have fallen victim to the dark side of success, such as Marilyn Monroe, JFK and John Lennon. He also recites a monologue piece right at the end of the album that maybe brings some of the themes of the concept of the album finally into context. It’s well worth sticking with it to the very, very end. I also mustn’t forget my 13-year-old daughter Amy who you can hear on This Naked Endeavour. This track is really about the incredible achievement of space exploration and the danger and risk that entails. The lyrics are fairly acerbic in as much as I’m probably saying, why doesn’t anyone care what was achieved? Bowie said it all in Space Oddity in his lyric ‘And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear’. We think of celebrity and media as a recent thing but I think that since the dawn of man, people have been more attracted to the ‘froth’ of the achievement rather than what it really means. There are some strong references to the moon landing and Neil Armstrong of course, who was definitely a major inspirational figure in my childhood and remains so now.
Alison Henderson: And I believe you also got one of the “best in the business” to help you with the final mastering of the album?
Rob Armstrong: Indeed! You are referring to Rob Aubrey of course, who helped me with the final mix and mastered the album. I love working with Rob because he has incredible ‘ears’ that can pick out tiny details I’ve missed because I have got so close to the performance and artistic details of the music, rather than the technical ones. Rob is my musical proof reader and can be brutal in his critique but in a constructive and objective way. I owe him a great debt for allowing me to work alongside him during the final mixing process, which has made me a much better musician and producer. I think you have only to hear Big Big Train’s English Electric Pt 1 to appreciate the exemplary sonic standard to which he works to and why he is now considered as one of the leading engineers in the prog genre. One of the skills you learn is that a great mix sound starts with great individual sounds. The more beautiful the material you give him to work with, the more magic he can ‘weave’ into the final product.
Alison Henderson: How else have you been preparing for the release of the album?
Robin Armstrong: We’ve been much busier on this release as it’s being made independently without record company involvement. This means I’m spending a lot of time myself promoting and distributing the album. One of the aspects of this was a brand new Cosmograf website (www.cosmograf.com) which was built by my good friend Steve Mayne (Mayne.net) who has spent many hours making it extremely interactive and hooked in to current social media platforms. I’ve also used the photographic skills of my brother Dan Armstrong for a recent photoshoot, which also helps to promote things, especially for magazine and web articles.
Alison Henderson: Now the album is out, have you any other plans for this year?
Robin Armstrong: I am planning to re-record Freed from Anguish, which it is fair to say was the first and forgotten Cosmograf album which was released in 2008 only as a download. There is another big theme attached to it, this time about a man going to war. I may end up completely changing much of the original material but I hope to get something out in an EP format, later in the summer.
Alison Henderson: While we are talking about writing and recording, how do you go about your song writing process?
Robin Armstrong: Well, I usually start off with a riff on either keyboard or guitar. If I can still remember what I played a few days later, there is usually still some mileage in it but I never waste time on pursuing anything that doesn’t pass the memory test. The lyrics and concepts tend to come much later but they will always cause me to revisit the music and change it to fit the theme. I can’t really write a song without it having a meaning or concept. My thing is melancholy rock and typically my lyrics and melodies are tinged with grey rather than rose-tinted. I think prog gets stereotyped for having geeky themes about hidden worlds and random spiritual messages but these aren’t really me. I hugely admire Roger Waters’ skill at conveying deep sarcasm and irony in his lyrics as well as Steven Wilson’s style of nostalgically recalling past life events. I think when you get past the age of 40, you start to get a heavy dose of realism about life. I’m more interested in writing about the human condition than politics as such though, or indeed magical worlds with unicorns.
Alison Henderson: Are you any closer now to doing any live dates? You were a little uncertain the last time we spoke about this.
Robin Armstrong: I’m still uncertain. I think this will happen eventually but the big problem with playing live is that to get to that rewarding point where you are on stage for two hours would require a huge amount of time, money and effort to achieve. It’s doubtful the outlay would be recovered in today’s climate so it can only happen where it would be viable which is more likely to occur when we have a larger following. I’m not really interested in touring around Europe in a transit van; it’s not playing to my skill set because for me, the studio is much nicer placer to be, so any gigs are likely to be few and far between but hopefully something special.
For more information, visit: www.cosmograf.com