Interview with Roberto Diaz of Anima Mundi
Olga ‘Odessa’ Potekhina
Band photos by Nacho Vazquez – Live photos by Dave Baird
Anima Mundi, a Cuban prog rock band, has presented a new album this year. They’ve got a new vocalist who was already on the lineup touring Europe this summer. In fact, it’s a new musical direction for the band, and now we have a chat with one its leaders, Roberto Diaz, about their new music, as well as mysticism, prog, guitars, philosophy and… fun!
Olga: Roberto, The Lamplighter differs very much in the sense of music from any other Anima Mundi’s album – it’s more “philosophic” and spacey, calling to mind something like Rajah by Camel. What was important to express in it?
Roberto: Musically speaking, the album was oriented to create an illusion of “a band and an orchestra playing together”. And the album was conceived in a classic suite structure: several distinct pieces of music that, taken together, will shape a whole musical composition. The first suite is more vocal-oriented, with major tones prevailing. And the second suite is more instrumental, overruled by minor and dissonant tones. “The Return” was created in a “pavane” style, with quite dramatic depth. But “His Majesty Love” is a universal love anthem: only love could make us wise!
Olga: And “The Lamplighter”?
Roberto: In our album, the Lamplighter embodies our deepest inner being, the pure human spirit that lives behind our mind represented by the forest inside the human house. And this “house” is our heart! In the first suite, we can follow the dialogue between our deepest spirit (the Lamplighter) and the mental being that is formed by cultures, religions, or politics… until this world tries to surround it by walls of fears. The second suite turns our sight to a cosmic perspective, reminding us about being sons and daughters of the solar dynasty and universe first of all, rather than just people enclosed within the wall of narrow viewpoints that most of cultures try to build up. It talks about the time we have as human race to elevate ourselves going beyond our limitations for love and understanding.
Olga: If we try to represent each AM album by just one or two words, a single “feature ” – say, I see Jagannath Orbit as “sunny, energy”, The Way – as “drama”, and what about The Lamplighter, what’s your keyword for it?
Roberto: “The Light”, for sure!
Olga: Roberto, in each of your albums, and most notably, in the new album, – you show a different musical direction. Is that a plan?
Roberto: It’s a plan in the course of its development! When we start an album, we often have a complete vision of the musical direction. We create a whole musical feeling and impression about what will happen in the album, general musical structures, tonalities, keys, time signatures, lyrics concept, etc. But it also happens that each album continues developing by itself while we’re working on it, so most of the times, you can get some unexpected changes in different aspects of the album. It’s a live process that musicians and producers learn to love. (smiling)
Olga: Anima Mundi presented some of these new songs when touring Europe last year (2012). How come that you “dare” to reveal new songs from the forthcoming album long before its release?
Roberto: It has been a kind of “modus operandi” in the Anima Mundi‘s history: to play “live” some of the new songs before recording. The reason is simple: we’ve got more opportunities to play live than to record music in a studio, and we always think that “live” presentations are such a good test for our new songs! We see more clearly what does and what doesn’t work, and have a chance to change or develop something. We played the “Tales form Endless Star” Suite and “His Majesty Love” during the 2012 Europe tour. The reaction of the audience was really amazing! By the way, some music from the suite ‘Tales from Endless Star’ originated and developed from the very early Anima Mundi’s times. For example, “The Return” Part I, “Endless Star” and “The Dream Child Behind the Mask” were composed back in 1998! But “The Dream Child Behind the Mask” was transformed a lot. Virginia and I were dissatisfied with the initial arrangement. So now it’s almost “a new child”, with several changes including tonal modulations, added parts, new lyrics, and even the name!
Olga: Roberto, what inspires you in creating music and lyrics?
Roberto: My inner force for the inspiration is the necessity to create music and lyrics as something that has never been played or said before. It’s my own vision, musically and lyrically, my deep desire about what I want to listen to. It’s a compelling urge to say something and express myself. And of course I take all that’s inside my mind and heart: all the personal ideas, life experience and imagination…
Olga: Reading the lyrics, I can’t help asking a question: what kind of books do you like?
Roberto: Actually, I used to read more often in the past – in my childhood and teenager’s time, there were lots of fairly tales from Europe and Greek Mythology, as well as books by José Martí, Horacio Quiroga, Sir A. C. Conan Doyle, E.A. Poe, and H. P. Lovecraft. Then I discovered the magic world of J.R.R. Tolkien, joined in the Oriental mystic and poetic literature that I really love: Rabindranath Tagore, Paramahansa Yogananda, Lao Tsé, Ramayana, Bhagavad Gita, and more and more.
Olga: I see that The Lamplighter’s beautiful cover art was created by Ed Unitsky, a well-known prog fantasy artist. And it’s not just a nice picture, but rather a message, too…
Roberto: Well, what we wanted was not a “straightforward” but rather a symbolic and magic cover! And Ed Unitsky was the one who was really capable to accomplish it, using beautiful images and a perfect composition balanced in colours and form. Our first reaction was: “Oh, that’s it! It’s done, it’s what we are looking for, and it’s fantastic!” I also accept the idea of his art as a blend of human spirituality and the language of fantasy. It is something that Anima Mundi and Ed have in common. And the cover is a symbolic representation of The Lamplighter concept. The forest represents the human mind; in the centre, there is a Lamp, the Human House, the Heart. And Love and Knowledge flame is always burning inside it! This lamp is guarded by some animals that stand for important values protecting the heart’s light from inner enemies. These “guards” are a peacock (beauty), a frog (evolution), a lizard (wisdom), a grasshopper (hope), and a butterfly (transmutation). So, welcome to the Lamplighter house! (smiling)
Olga: Thank you! And what was your very first encounter with prog music?
Roberto: Pink Floyd “Live at Pompeii” was the first prog discovery for me, and I was truly astonished! Then I looked for other guys crewing music in that totally different way, with references to classical music, experimentation and amazing sense of space… So I got to know Yes, Genesis, ELP, King Crimson, Rick Wakeman and others. And I looked for all their albums!!! I found that progressive rock could meet my desire to be a rock guitar player and at the same time create some inspiring and serious music like classics. To me, prog rock appeared the ideal point of balance of my musical tastes.
Olga: What does the “PROGRESSIVE music” term imply for you, which of its underlying ideas appears most in tune with your musical tastes and personality?
Roberto: Oh, that’s “the question of the questions”! 😉 I can talk a lot about this approach to music that started back in the late 60’s. The features of progressive rock are well known – from classical music structures and mixing music styles to subject areas in lyrics. But what’s far more important is that the authors in prog rock (I mean the musicians, lyricists, painters and designers) look for a real artistic and philosophic background for the music (beyond the limits of a simple song or a silly piece of lyrics)… extending at times to a totally different universe. And to me personally, “progressive rock” includes experimentation and searching of new horizons and… an active and responsive audience to complete the “music energy” circle! (smiling)
Olga: And is it easy to be a “follower” of the classic prog heritage, and at the same time, feel the pressing need to be “different” from Genesis, Yes, etc.?
Roberto: I think it isn’t easy to be a follower of any other music style in general. But it’s just a matter of attitudes to the same reality: it’s about what is worthy to be done in the process of making music. Some people will be looking into your work like researchers, while others will just enjoy your music… or not. We really don’t care much about this; we are not obsessed by ideas of finding a totally new way of making prog and “becoming a new prog messiah” (smiling). At Anima Mundi, we makes music with all our hearts! In my humble opinion, one can get lost in pursuing a new kind of music with new forms or structures, and then end up far away from the genuine spirit of making music.
Olga: Roberto, the new album was recorded in the Netherlands. Did this experience make a great difference compared with your recording of the first album at home?
Roberto: Yes, of course, it did! In the Netherlands, we did all the set up for the entire album, and the pre-recording sessions were very intense and good for the result: all the background preparation, a lot of rehearsals, experiments with arrangements, etc. After that, we worked on drums and Carlos Sosa vocals (yet, they didn’t get to the final version…). The clarinet was recorded in Spain, and all the other instruments – in Cuba. So, the recording experience with The Lamplighter was quite different, not only from that with the first album, but from the other ones as well. I would say, it was a kind of an “international quest”!
Olga: And how did you manage to finish the recording with a new vocalist later?
Roberto: Oh, that was really difficult! First of all, Cuba is not a country where you can get an English-speaking rock singer easily, it is almost impossible! But Emmanuel has known Anima Mundi‘s music since he was a teenager, and when he came to the audition he was very excited. The Lamplighter needed to be performed in a narrative dramatic and extraordinary voice, and we think Emmanuel’s voice fits perfectly! Emmanuel is kind of a storyteller, and his voice has the suitable tone for The Lamplighter’s melodies and mood, with a lot of charisma – it’s not a “typical” vocal. And seeing his enthusiasm and passion for the work, we feel what a blessing it is to find someone like him! Emmanuel had to learn and record the whole album within a very short term. Just as a comparison, Carlos had years for learning, setting up and recording the previous albums, The Way and Jagannath Orbit. Those were albums recorded while plenty of time was available, but it wasn’t the case for The Lamplighter, and it wasn’t possible for Emmanuel. This time, Anima Mundi was trying to seize every single moment, working with a new vocalist who had just a month to perfect and record a brand new album. Two specific parts needed to be transcribed two tones below… And – just imagine! – Emmanuel recorded the entire album in just 6 hours and separated the recording in three days, after almost a month of rehearsals. We are really lucky!
Olga: The musicians of your rhythm section are much more inclined to “heavy” music interests (as I’ve found from their bios on the band’s website), while you and Virginia are “classical training” musicians. How do you reach a “mutual agreement” regarding the music?
Roberto: Yes… I think Anima Mundi is a symphonic prog rock band that needs a strong rhythm section and more classical approach in its harmonies and melodies, so I think we have an ideal balance! That’s a perfect case where the opposites attract: Yarosky and Manolo are musicians with a very “melodic” taste for the music, and Virginia and I feel very much the same about the strong rhythm section.
Olga: You and Virginia are co-writers of the music – please tell us about your process of working together.
Roberto: We actually compose music independently, then we “confront” our ideas most of the time; we add musical passages that Virginia has composed to the main structure of a song. In particular, the piano or synthesizer parts work most often in a very classical way. In the “Call” and “Farewell Song” from The Lamplighter album, it was the first time when we worked in the same way around some direction: she brought the main structure of the song, I completed the vocal melody lines and lyrics, and then the song was ready! I’d like to note that Virginia’s ideas about the arrangements are very important contribution to Anima Mundi’s sound. We also explore modulations and orchestrations that are an important part of the work.
Olga: How do you compose your music – do you “hear” something in your mind, or in your dreams, or just work hard playing guitar?
Roberto: I use to hear sounds that come to my mind, as well as develop the ideas that come up while I play guitar, bass or keys. Very often, ideas come while I walk or if I’m inspired or touched by some thoughts, feeling, events, or views. It’s a mix of everything except… night dreams! I wonder why I never got any idea emerging from a night dream – at least, I haven’t so far. (smiling) Anyway, I think that ideas come from another “part” or “level” outside this world… I select them carefully and introduce them to arrangement process.
Olga: And as to the arrangement, what’s your opinion about the current trend to “part” symphonic and keyboard performance in prog music? I mean they tend to use more orchestra and not to “love” keys much…
Roberto: I wouldn’t speak about any “common” rules in prog now: everyone may pursue their own “trend” or way of thinking they want in music! And how can I “part” keys and orchestra? Keyboards are the most significant instruments in the prog music history. Mellotron, Hammond Organ, the synthesizers and different kinds of electric pianos and clavichord put the secret sounds of the symphonic prog rock into the map. All of these “keys” have provided for the greatest albums of the genre of all times, and they are still doing their job! They have a magic that you can’t substitute or avoid. And we are also big fans of a symphonic orchestra: you can’t actually replace this “sound” that is so complex – percussion, wood, brass and strings, many other instruments and their combinations play together, and you get unique colours and “inner” movements. That’s pure magic!
Olga: In The Lamplighter, I’ve noticed an echo of classical music – from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet (Dance of the knights) to Edward Grieg’s Peer Gynt…
Roberto: I am glad that you talk about it; Anima Mundi is a band influenced by classical music a lot, as much as by rock music actually. Some of our principal influences in The Lamplighter album come from classical composers such as Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Holst, Falla, Debussy, Ravel, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky.
Olga: And did you have a “temptation” to use traditional Cuban influences in your music?
Roberto: Yes, I did. In Septentrión and Jagannath Orbit, there is a lot of Cuban flavor and influences: Cuban country music, Afrocuban, Cuban syncope and “cinquillo”. Yet, we didn’t treat them in an evident way like commercial or folk Cuban music does; instead, we mixed them with lots of other influences and changes of sound or structures. So, this process has been very subtle in the Anima Mundi way to make music, and I can say one thing for sure: we have never tried to sell our music as Cuban from a commercial point of view!
Olga: Combining a daytime job with creating prog music – how do you manage it in Cuba?
Roberto: We have always managed to find some “place and time” for the band in the middle of daily job. Usually, we hold the rehearsals two or three days a week – and more often, of course, when we are going on a tour or preparing a new album. On the other hand, creating music is a continual “work in progress”, and there is no special time for it… as it always happens!
Olga: And how was it in the very beginning?
Roberto: Virginia and I started the band in 1996 together with other three friends who studied along with us, majoring in Musical Education as we did. Those times were really difficult: Cuba was passing through one of the worst periods of economical distress ever. It was really hard to find some instruments or amplifiers for playing music, or to manage to record an album even in a very “poor” quality. That was the reason why Anima Mundi that was born in 1996, made the first live performance in 1997 and recorded the first studio album in 2001 only! We were eager to find compositions and our own musical way. After the success of The Way album, we received the support that we never had before. And now we are, without any doubt, having our best times so far, although we feel that we still need to accomplish many things as a band and as human beings.
Olga: What was your own way to the music?
Roberto: It started when I was a child – my father used to listen to symphonic music including many movie soundtracks and instrumental music. Later, in my teens, I was a big fan of rock bands: my first love was The Beatles, and then, step by step, I got to know the music of Queen, Rush, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, and many others. At that time, aged 12, I started to play guitar. And I just had a dream: I wanted to be a rock guitar player! I found some local bands and tried to learn everything about rock’n’roll. At college, I chose to major in Musical Education: it was the closest I cloud get related to a deep study of music.
Olga: I am not a professional, but I’d like to ask you about your guitars – including that one with a “volcanic” look that we could see on the DVD and during your 2013 tour…
Roberto: The guitar with a “volcanic” look is an Epiphone Les Paul Limited Edition. I also use two Fender Stratocasters, one of them being a classic replica of the 21-fret 57’ Stratocaster, and the other one – a 22-fret 91’ Deluxe series. For acoustic guitars, I play Spanish classic guitar Pablo Quintana, Fenix 12 string folk acoustic guitar, and during the recent “Lamplighter” tour, I played an Ovation for live performance. Actually, my favourite guitar sounds are Fender Stratocaster, Fender Telecaster, Gibson Les Paul and Parkers Fly. It’s funny enough to say this today if we recall my first guitar that came to me when I was 13 or 14 years old. It was a very cheap guitar, and she had no brand at all and could easily remind you of a “Gibson semi acoustic”. I really don’t remember what happened to her – I guess I sold that guitar again very soon. (smiling)
Olga: To another beginner who wanted to be a rock or even prog rock star?
Roberto: I don’t think so… (smiling) In Cuba, we were “blocked” from prog, and in general, from rock music, for many years. Nowadays, rock music is available for everybody, but the problem is that, as a result of “the Curtain” period (that lasted from the 60s till the mid 90s), there is no local audience interested in prog and rock, and the market for it hasn’t been formed. Instead, our musical market and the national scene are full of Latin music, and it’s simply low quality music sometimes. It’s a difficult and unfavourable situation for the musicians who love to play rock music; and yet, the rockers keep on, anyway!
Olga: I see it from your own example! And Anima Mundi’s new album is released under your own label – is it due to the music industry’s current tough situation with selling CDs?
Roberto: Not only that, actually. With our own label, we have much better control over the process concerning our products: from recording CD and DVD albums to production and promotion, etc. Now we can focus on each step of the release and figure out “what’s next”. Of course, it’s a new label, and we are growing day after day (smiling). As to the commercial matters – you know, the music world has changed, and prog rock bands can’t earn a lot of money anymore. And the same time, in my point of view, we can also observe some positive aspects in the current situation. One of them is actual independence of small labels that are far from the big companies’ interests and dictatorship. It may happen that such independence will help prog rock and other music survive! And yet, it’s also clear that we’ve got serious economical issues… Anyway, musicians are going forward looking for a solution. And eventually, only time will tell on that.
Olga: Have you had an opportunity to listen to the new prog releases? Is there anything you’ve found most impressive over the recent year(s)?
Roberto: Some time ago, I had an opportunity to listen to some of the long-awaited albums, and I enjoyed Big Big Train’s English Electric I and II and The Flower Kings’ Banks of Eden very much.
Olga: I was surprised to discover that you have participated in a Ukrainian project – Antony Kalugin’s Sunchild in 2011.
Roberto: Antony is a great musician and composer; his music is quite positive and complex. We were in touch by e-mail, and he invited me to play some guitar parts in the “Stars of Cardiff Bay” song from the Sunchild’s album called As Far as Eye Can See, and take part in the Karfagen’s album The Lost Symphony. It was a great experience and a lot of pleasure for me to work together with Antony. I like both these albums very much!
Olga: Long ago, prog fans tended to take Anima Mundi as a Cuban “Yes”, and what would you like to hear about your band now?
Roberto: Well, I’d rather hear from the prog fans that we are just Anima Mundi.
Olga: Mystics, dreams, fairy tales… What is Anima Mundi to you – in general and as a band?
Roberto: I envisage Anima Mundi as a kind of musical starship flying in the universe of the present art rock scene. Even though we are looking into the future, we still bear some magic touch from the primary glimpse of those at the origins of the progressive rock. And we just do our best having as much fun as possible on board!
Olga: Really, there you are! And what’s next, any plans for the near future?
Roberto: Well, the plans are to compose and record more and more music and play live as much as possible! I am already working on the material for a new album that we expect to be ready in 2015. The band is also planning a European Tour in 2014. As a band, we are also willing to record some of the best songs from the very beginning of Anima Mundi. They’ve never been recorded before – and it can be the starting point for a new album as well. But we don’t know how long it will take. There is also some brand new music waiting for a new album, and it’s most exciting for us!
Olga: Good luck to you with all of your plans, and thanks so much for your interesting and detailed answers!
Roberto: Oh, thanks to all the prog audience – Love and Light to all of your readers!
Olga: P.S. Recently Roberto Diaz has told about solo album creating and Anima Mundi’s appearance at Progressive Promotion Festival – 2014. More news will follow!