I first encountered Luke Machin’s guitar playing on The Tangent’s COMM, and, after getting over the initial shock and mock indignation at hearing a swept arpeggio on a Tangent album, fast became an ardent supporter of his. Over the following year, I got to know the music of his own band, Maschine. Their debut album, Rubidium, is finally out and sure to please even the most haughty of prog fans (well, maybe not that one guy, but certainly enough of the rest of us). Over what was a refreshingly stable Skype connection between Bangalore at 1 am and Brighton in the late evening, I caught up with Luke, bass player Dan Mash and guitarist Elliot Fuller.
Interview for DPRP by Tushar Menon – Photographs by Paul Johnson
A standard question to get the ball rolling… How did everyone become involved with Maschine?
Luke: Well, basically, I came from the North of England! I came down to Brighton to the Brighton Institute of Modern Music in 2008. I met [drummer] Doug [Hamer] first. We started as a three-piece, but I wanted to form a band to do something in progressive rock. Then, through various circumstances, like end-of-term gigs, I met Dan [Mash]. I remember we did a cover of Black Magic Woman. I knew at the time he was a good bass player, so I gave him a compilation CD of progressive and fusion tracks and then asked him if he wasn’t interested in joining this progressive band that I had started and he said yes. Georgia [Lewis] was in the house band along with Dan and myself so she was the obvious choice for us. Elliot joined the band after the previous guitar player left. We didn’t even audition him – it just worked out that he was the right man for the job.
So what was the first gig like for you, then Elliot?
Elliot: It was weird because I hadn’t played with the band as a band. I didn’t jam with band – I just sat with Luke, listened to the songs. And I was living with Dan at the time, so we’d run through the songs together. I think it came across quite well that night. It felt good.
Dan: It was like your audition, in a way. You nailed it on the night, and we all went ‘yeah…’
Luke: I remember when we were rocking out to some of the heavier sections, looking over to Elliot who had his foot on the monitors, headbanging and gurning, which the previous guitarist never did, so I was thinking, ‘yeah, I think he’s passed!’
I’ve been a fan of yours, Dan, ever since I saw you for the first time on stage with The Tangent (note: in the background Elliot mimes Dan’s head swelling). Yours is a noticeably funk-influenced style. How does that fit it with something as generically different as prog?
Dan: I was having this conversation with Luke the other day. It seemed that every live review we had of The Tangent was along the lines of ‘Dan Mash, funk bass player… Bringing the funk influence to the sound…’ As much as I am influenced by funk, as well as Motown, soul and loads of other genres, that’s not necessarily what I want to bring to the sound. I want to think of myself as a more diverse player. I do get associated with that sound because I like to play slap and funk. My progressive background isn’t massive. I’d heard Genesis and Floyd and things like that but never a massive range to call myself a progressive fan. But with playing in The Tangent, I started to listen to more of that kind of stuff.
A question to Elliot and Dan, how much of a say do you guys have in the band, considering Luke’s is the most dominant personality?
Elliot: The band is Luke’s baby. We know that. But at the same time, he’s not holding onto it, smothering it and not letting us help.
Dan: The thing is this album is Luke’s album, but we have all made suggestions. If he thinks it’s the right way to take it, he’ll go with it. If not, we talk about it and arrive at a compromise. There’s always an amicable result in what we talk about.
Luke: Just to chip in, I would try to explain what I’m going for, in terms of mood or sound.
Dan: This album has been written by Luke, but that doesn’t mean it might not be different on future albums.
How much of an impact, musically and personally, did The Tangent stint have on the two of you?
Luke: Well, loads of experience gained from The Tangent. I think mainly, going out, playing live and specifically learning to deal with situations that are not ideal about things like my guitar sound.
Dan: Playing with The Tangent taught me to have fun playing live. It was difficult because the songs were long and there was lots to remember. But once we got to grips with those songs, we could go out there, improvise a bit and have fun with them. With Maschine, it’s a little more technical, you need to be a little more on it and concentrate a bit more, so it takes longer. With The Tangent, I could go out and let me natural playing come though – that’s how I got the reputation as a funk player.
Luke: Yeah, with The Tangent, there was more space. On the Down and Out in Paris and London album, for example, since there were no guitar parts other than what Andy [Tillison] had recorded, I could play a lot around his keyboards without treading on his toes. Of course the experience of doing COMM was a great lesson in how to do things in the studio.
I could have sworn you just said ‘without shredding on his toes.’ Which brings me nicely to my next question. Luke, your ability on guitar brings to mind the phrase ‘stunt guitar’ as was applied to Vai in the Zappa days. Is it difficult to rein in that instinct when writing songs?
Luke: You need to write songs that the audience can listen to. If you’re writing songs that only you enjoy, then it’s not the best way to work. There are things that I can do on guitar that other may not be able to do because I’ve learnt it a certain way.
I just write music. If people then class it as progressive music, then that’s absolutely fine by me. I haven’t listened to progressive music exclusively- I’ve listened to as much jazz and other genres as progressive rock. To paraphrase Guthrie Govan “There are no genres – there’s only bad and good music”. I don’t want to be self-indulgent and play 200 miles an hour, 240 bpm because I’m the only one who’s going to enjoy that.
This is a question I like to ask any prog musician whom I meet. To whom do you attribute the resurgence of prog in the last few years after its dip in popularity in the 80s and 90s?
Luke: It did dip in the 90s, didn’t it? Wasn’t too popular in the 80s either. Obviously Dream Theater in the 90s, then later guys like Pain of Salvation did a lot for the genre. Nowadays it has to be Steven Wilson, right? He and Porcupine Tree always held the torch for progressive music.
Dan: Luke and I were talking the other day about the generation thing. It seems like every genre has a dip in a middle generation before it comes back again. It happened with 70s music, it’s happening now with 80s music. So with prog, the time is right to bring it back in a big way.
Luke: I think we can bring it back. There are many bands doing the djent thing, but what we want to do is make out stuff more dynamic without resorting to that sound. With tracks like Cubixstro, for example, we’re trying to make this music accessible to a younger audience. And introduce them to bands who can play their instruments! You go to places like Glastonbury and Download and it’s great to see people really into this kind of rock and metal.
Dan: The other thing is we don’t necessarily have all the classic traits of a progressive metal band. To return to the example of Cubixstro, there’s section that’s very much inspired by the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, which is not a traditional prog sound.
It is a little unusual for a band to have a line up change between the recording of their debut and its release. What’s the story behind Doug’s departure?
Luke: Doug’s been in the band since the beginning. He has shaped the band into a specific sound and he’s always been a big influence, especially about the metal kind of stuff. It’s really simple, it came down to musical differences and nothing else. He’s a great drummer. He really is. When we showed the new stuff to other drummers, there was only one guy who could do it and that was James [Stewart].
Dan: He deserved to be on the album, too. That was important.
Elliot: Yeah, he put it stamp on it. It would have been wrong not to include him.
Luke: It also helps that James is in one of Doug’s favourite bands ever. He couldn’t believe we’d got the guy from Vader to replace him!
Your set at Summer’s End in 2011 was something I heard about from a number of people.
Elliot: We’d never played to an audience rooted in that progressive scene. Shows before that had been a sort of mixed bag in Brighton and London to whomever showed up. Andy was kind enough to build us up. It was the first time we got to perform to a dedicated audience like that.
Was that a sort of turning point for the band, going from ‘band formed at a music college’ to ‘recording and touring full-time band’?
Luke: Yeah, I think it was around then. I felt that we were doing these gigs in Brighton but there was never a proper gig where we felt like ‘this is it’. When Dan and I would go out with The Tangent we’d be thinking ‘This is what we need to be doing with Maschine’. I think Summer’s End was the start of that. Andy took a video of the crowd cheering between the last song and the encore to the head of Inside Out, Thomas [Weber]. Andy was really proud of us. Once we got signed and had a look at some of the other bands on the roster, it felt really strange!
OK, let’s get a bit specific about some of the songs on the album. The opener, The Fallen has my favourite riff of the entire album. Tell me a little about the genesis of that riff, and also how the rest of that song was constructed.
Luke: There are two ways I write a track. There’s the ‘Fallen’ way where I write bits over a period of time and then piece them all together. Then there are tracks like ‘Rubidium’ where I write it from start to finish and I can hear exactly what’s coming next. With that riff from The Fallen, I remember, I was in my bedroom had a jumper on, put it over my head and I could immediately hear this bouncing riff and I knew immediately what it was, ran downstairs and put Logic on, dropped my guitar to a dropped D tuning, hit that fifth fret on the A string and that was it. Inspiration is strange. It can come from a lyric, a song or even just pulling a jumper over your head!
I also hear loads of stuff in that transition phase between being awake and asleep. There have been lots of times I’ve woken up and thought ‘Fuck! I’ve lost that!’
Elliot: Actually, The Fallen was quite a struggle. It took us ages to get it to what it is now. All the other songs fell into place quite easily, but that one was a real challenge. Luke and I sat and slogged over it for about twelve hours.
Luke: With the first couple of riffs of that instrumental section, what I did was try to recreate the feeling of Dream Theater’s The Glass Prison. I don’t rip off the notes or anything, but I try to capture the feeling, grasp that and then put it back into music form. That whole instrumental section is a journey that references Dream Theater, but is still different.
This album presents your lead vocals on an album for the first time. What’s your approach to writing vocal lines and arrangements?
Luke: I write a lot of this stuff on acoustic guitar. The vocal lines usually come straight away, maybe a few tweaks here and there. I like motifs and recurring themes, like in Cubixstro. I am, of course hugely influenced by Francis Dunnery who is himself influenced by Genesis. Melodicism is extremely important, even for instruments. You should be able to sing a guitar line. Guthrie Govan’s stuff, for example, is quite vocal. I like to write harmony as well, so it’s really nice to have Georgia’s dynamic. It brings in a new dimension to the music. It doesn’t show of Georgia’s vocals as such. It’s not a case of ‘she’s attractive, she’s young, there’s a female voice, let’s stick her in the front of the band’, that’s not what we’re about at all.
You mentioned Cubixstro earlier on as well. What on earth does ‘Cubixstro’ mean?
Luke: Cubixstro literally doesn’t mean anything. It was a working title, that one. Most working titles disappear soon enough, but Cubixstro was just such a good working title that it stuck.
But where does that word come from? I actually Googled it, and the first half dozen hits were from your website or webpages referring to you.
Luke: That’s really cool! I’m glad you can’t find it. Well most of the working titles are strange. The Fallen was, at some point, something like ‘The Epic Adventures of Lord Zanzibar’. Cubixstro is like a twisted onomatopoeia, because the track does twist and turn in so many ways, with so many sides to it, sort of like a Rubik’s cube, and, well ‘stro’ is just, I don’t know, rolling the fuckin’ dice, I don’t know!
Where does your inspiration for lyrics come from?
Luke: Lyrically, the album is just about my experiences, the past, growing up, relationships (not necessarily with girlfriends or anything), history- The song ‘Invincible’ is about a guy whose life was going nowhere and ended up going to the Falkland Islands on the HMS Invincible. It’s a lot about the experiences I’ve had between the ages of 12 and about 20.
There’s a ten minute song, Beast which was part of your live set, which also exists as a demo, but did not make it onto this album. Why was it dropped?
Luke: We had to drop that because it was a real race to get the whole album up to scratch. We had to rewrite a lot of sections and add to it, it grew to about 15 minutes. It may not even be on the next album, but that will be released one day.
Elliot: I think it’ll be our Octavarium
Dan: Yeah, just give us ten years!
OK, we’re going to have to pause for a second, because it’s now completely dark and I can’t see any of you!
Luke: Well, we could move inside, although there’s no place to sit…
Elliot: We could sit on the floor, I don’t mind. We can’t move too far because if the laptop gets unplugged it dies, basically!
Now that you’re in the comfort of your kitchen floor, let’s go on! Luke, are you likely to join another band as a pure lead guitarist, like with The Tangent, or are you entirely focused on being the President and CEO at Maschine?
Luke: With The Tangent, being a full-on guitarist was a great experience. I do want to pursue that and keep doing it with bands. I want to be a working musician but at the same time, I need to have my own band. Maschine is something I really enjoy. We haven’t actually got to the point where we’ve experienced and enjoyed it as fully as we could. I can see us touring and doing different things. So, to answer your question, both. Of course, producing and composing are also things that I want to do. I don’t want to be a one-trick-pony. I want to develop my voice, my compositions, my production work. Kind of like Steven Wilson. If there are people to look up to in that respect, it’s guys like him, Francis Dunnery and Daniel Gildenlöw. But Machine is the workhorse .
Final question – if someone handed you this album and you had no idea who these guys were, what would your impressions be of it?
Elliot: It’s a bit shit! (laughs)
Dan: Well, the bass is shit hot! (laughs)
Elliot: First and foremost, this is really diverse. The first two tracks are very much in that prog metal area, so people might be expecting the whole album to be like that, and then they hit Cubixstro and immediately go “What? I didn’t expect that! I have to listen to the rest of the album now.” I like to think that, even though it goes off a bit here and there, there is still that consistency. There is a core sound to all the songs.
Luke: You do get albums sometimes where each track sounds like it’s been recorded by a different band, but on this album, it definitely sounds like the same band throughout. Listening to it from an outside point of view, it’s definitely a grower. You need to keep listening, even though the melodies are not the hardest to get into. Even the solos, I mean, oddly some of the reviews have used the term ‘self-indulgent’. We could be! But we’re not. As Elliot said, there is a definite core sound in there that will really be developed and explored in the next two or three albums.
Dan: As a complete outsider, I’d be a bit shocked, to be honest. I’d never heard anything that sounded like this band until I became involved in it. So listening to it would be quite crazy, but I’d definitely want to listen to it again. All you need on an album to make you want to listen to it again is a couple of songs you like, and this one has more than a couple of songs that I like. And some that I wasn’t into at the start, like Invincible, are now my favourite.
Luke: Andy compared us online to Yes, and said they didn’t know who they were until a good three albums in, but there was a mix of all these chemicals, and you could hear something happening. That’s what it is with this band, and so if you’re not going to give it a chance, you might be missing out on something. And that’s something you can’t afford to do in progressive music. I’m extremely happy with the way the album’s turned out, the way it’s been produced and recorded. Once the whole djent thing has gone out of the window and people start listening to drums recorded in a room as they should be, I want it to stand tall.
That’s as good a note to end on as any. Thanks for braving the heat, the darkness and kitchen floor for so long to talk to me! All the best.