Interview with Erik Norlander
A few weeks back I had the opportunity of talking with Keyboardist Erik Norlander of The Rocket Scientists about their latest release after a 7 year gap – Traveller on the Supernatural Highway, Erik proved to be a very articulate informative and amusing interviewee. Read on to hear about the history and future of the band, his thoughts on fame and his admiration for a famous pop star
JWS: Thank you for talking to us. It’s very kind of you to make time to talk to us.
We’re going to talk about your latest release the “Supernatural Highways” ep. Can you tell me . . Why an EP?
EN: In 2012, I was speaking with Mark McCrite and Don Schiff my two bandmates in Rocket Scientists and I pointed out that the next year, 2013, was going to be the 20th anniversary of the band. Our first album had come out in 1993 and I thought it would be good to do something to mark the occasion. I hadn’t recorded anything new since 2007, as we’d all been busy with various other projects, but I thought it was an appropriate time to get back together and record something for the 20th anniversary. So in late 2012, I basically commissioned the guys to start writing and coming up with ideas and so forth, and we did that through 2013 and we were actually quite prolific we came up with probably more than an album’s worth of material and one of the things we came up with was this kind of instrumental theme and on past albums I had written themes just like an overture, a prologue, a prelude, etc, then I would reprise that at the end as an epilogue or finale. So I wanted if I might do something like that on this album. So I wrote this theme and I really liked it, I was really I was really inspired by it and I kept adding on to it. I said “Oh logically it goes down this path, oh and now of course it goes down this road, and then you have to go here” and pretty soon I had over 20 minutes of music written. (Laughs) Don Schiff had also written, in the same key at the same tempo that went along with this just perfectly, so when we put it all together, we had this 26 minute piece of music that just flows so beautifully from start to finish. I didn’t want to compromise it in any way; I didn’t want to chop it up into smaller bites just to fit in the album format as an overture and a finale…
JWS: Ok, so you wanted it to live as a solo piece basically?
EN: Absolutely, and I thought, you know, especially in this age of digital downloads and so forth, nothing says we have to put out a 4 minute single or a 60 minute full album. Why can’t we do something in between? So we put out this long piece Traveller on the Supernatural Highway as its own release and then we had also done this cover of the James Bond theme “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” for Mark McCrite as a guitarist. Mark’s been a John Barry fan ever since he was a kid and always loved the song, so we worked out a nice arrangement of this. And I thought that would be a nice bonus track (laughs) I guessed on this Supernatural Highways just so it wasn’t just the one thing, just so we had a little dessert piece, I suppose.
JWS: Yes, I was going to ask you about that James Bond one because obviously “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” is possibly one of the lesser known Bond themes, isn’t it?
EN: It certainly is, you think of the 007 theme with kind of Dick Dale’s guitar riff, but Mark has always been a fan of this particular song. I’ve known Mark for 30 years and he’s played it for me this hundreds of times ever since we were in high school and of course I’ve heard it in the film and when we gave it the Rocket Scientists treatment, it fell very naturally into what we do. I brought in a couple of horn players that I’ve worked with on a couple of projects before to cover the parts, cos you can’t do a James Bond song without horns!
JWS No no, you’ve got to have a brass part in there, haven’t you?
EN: (laughs) So we did that, and then of course I did my moog solo bit and Mark did his lead guitar stuff and Don on the NS stick on the bass instrument you really approach that groove in an interesting way. I think he updated it, but in a very respectful manner. All of us were very cognisant of what was sacred and what you could play with a little bit when it came to this song. Like even playing the melody, ok we thought it’s ok to ornament a little bit to make the melody a bit more flowery or something, but you can’t change the notes and then if you start changing the notes and playing an alternate melody it then becomes blasphemous, so we were very cognisant of that and where the line was. But I think we took it pretty far while still being respectful to it. John Barry is not with us, unfortunately, but I think if he was still alive, I think he would enjoy this cover a lot.
JWS: It’s nice to think that he would enjoy it, isn’t it?
EN: I hope so, yes. We definitely approached it with a lot of reverence.
JWS: Yes, and I think that comes through and it obviously makes a difference really, when you show reverence to a piece, I think it’s a good thing to do really.
EN: So many artists cover songs and when I hear their cover version I think “You didn’t really learn the song, did you? You changed something, not because you wanted to change it, you changed it because you never really learned it in the first place”. I’ve recorded a lot of covers in my career, with my wife, Lana, and on my own solo albums, and the first thing I insist on is that everyone learns the original songs, note for note, phrase for phrase, if the vocalist does a little inflection here, a little turn here, whatever, you need to know that and then if you want to change it, OK, you can make that decision, but you can’t just sing something else, or play something else because you didn’t bother to learn the original part note for note. I had the good fortune a few years ago to do some tours with Joe Lynn Turner, the singer from Rainbow and we did a cover of Highway Star.
JWS: Oh yes, Deep Purple.
EN: As the organ player, I felt beyond obligated to play the John Lord solo just note for note, because it’s a perfect solo, classic and iconic and if I were to change it, I would only make it worse. I was very serious about learning that solo note for note and there’s some kind of odd things in it, some kind of modulations and where he gets a little bit outside the key, but it’s so classic, what choice do you have but you know playing it exactly right? Other than not to be respectable to it. So that was an example of going to great extremes to do it right.
JWS: See that’s very interesting because, as you say, we live in a world where, you know, X Factor and American Idol and stuff, all people seem to want to do is take the bones of a song and just use it as a show boat for their talent whereas your approach is completely the opposite.
EN: When I think of American Idol I think its spelt IDLE (laughs).
JWS: Good point, good point. You say you’ve been doing this for 20 years as Rocket Scientists, you’ve paid your dues along the way and that obviously shows in the way you play your music.
EN: Well I really appreciate that. We take what we do very seriously and a lot of times we get pushed, not just with Rocket Scientists, but with our other projects as well. We get pushed to release things just for the sake of releasing something, like with my wife, Lana, in particular like “Oh it’s been two years since you released an album, you have to release another album!” And we’ve gotten to the point now where, I’m in my mid 40’s and I’ve released a lot of albums, I don’t feel any rush to release something just for the sake of releasing it. In fact, I mentioned that we wanted to mark this 2013 anniversary of Rocket Scientists; well we missed it, didn’t we? (Laughs) Because this album comes out in 2014 and we’re still working on a full length album that we’re just putting the finishing touches on. But I didn’t feel the need, you know, to release something in 2013 just so we could release something in 2013.
JWS: Well if something’s good it’s worth waiting for, isn’t it?
EN: Well, I think so. I really believe that. I think that maybe when you’re a younger artist and you’re just starting to define yourself, you don’t want to get the reputation of, you know, taking five years to make an album. But I think, once you’ve crossed a certain threshold, I think you’ve earned the right to deliver something when it’s time and ready. I mean, even in the case of Rocket Scientists, we’re sitting on I guess its 6 albums now. Ok, 6 albums in 20 years, that’s not too prolific! But at the same time, that is quite a lot of music and we all have other projects as well. It’s not like Rocket Scientists goes and plays the 20,000 seat arenas. We’re all paying for our mansions and our Aston Martins with the royalties. See how I got the James Bond reference in there?
JWS: Yes, yes, yes, very good! (Both laugh)
EN: So I think at this point in our career, we just really need to make sure it’s right and when it’s right, we’ll release it. Hopefully it won’t take too long, but it’s got to be worthwhile because you can’t “un-release” something.
JWS: No, that’s true.
EN: We’re at an age, where it’s out there, it’s out there forever.
JWS: Mm, that’s true. So there is new material coming but we’re not quite sure yet when it will be, but possibly later this year, maybe?
EN: I expect it to be later this year.
JWS: Well that will be a full length album presumable, will it?
EN: Yes indeed.
JWS: Okay dokey.
EN: Actual vocals and some more traditional format.
JWS: Excellent. So the next question from that leads onto what about live shows and things?
EN: I’ve been touring with my solo band. In fact, I just got back from the American south east, North Carolina and Georgia last week. Did some nice shows down there. I’ve been doing that since about 2010. I really enjoy it. It’s just a great way for me to go out as a keyboardist and do what I do and really play at the top of my game. I think if Rocket Scientists were to go out, there would have to be a good reason for it. I wouldn’t want to just go out so we could say Rocket Scientists was touring. I think it would have to be, you know, for a special event, for festivals or something like that because the three of us all lead very different lives nowadays and we live in different cities and we don’t have a full time drummer so it would be a bit of a challenge to do a tour. But it’s not out of the question and if there was a good reason, a big festival or some kind of special event, something that would be the centre of a tour, then we would …..Until then I am just focusing on my solo band.
EN: In all fairness, I do play quite a bit of Rocket Scientists material in my solo set, so it gets represented that way I suppose.
JWS: Yes, cos I reviewed the Live at Gettysburg CD and DVD for DPRP.
EN: That’s right, I remember. Thank you for that.
JWS: Which I thoroughly enjoyed, I have to say.
EN: Well, thank you.
JWS: Yeah, and especially, I played it through a surround sound system that I had on the TV and the bottom end of the Moog sounded fantastic! (Laughs)
EN: Oh, wonderful. I went to great lengths to do that 5.1 mix.
JWS: Yes, it was very, very good, it’s impressive. That’s the other thing; it’s nice to see that somebody’s using that set up still. You know, we all remember Keith Emerson, with the big Moog and the millions of wires and things and buttons and levers that you used in the space shuttle. It’s nice to see that the modular Moog that you’re using nowadays.
EN: You know, it’s just the best sounding synthesizer there is. Obviously, it looks very cool and it’s massive. But the actual tone of it is phenomenal. It’s a discrete circus, a lot of hand wiring and I would liken it to a hand built sports car or a hand built guitar amplifier. It’s just a handmade instrument.
EN: Absolutely and the core of my modular Moog system was built in April of 1967. I was built born in July of 67 (laughs). It pre-dates me by just a few months!
EN: It’s just fun!
JWS: That’s really something.
EN: It really is and like all of us, it needs some maintenance, so I try to keep it in shape, like I try to keep myself in shape.
JWS: Indeed, as we all should as we’re getting older.
JWS: So there was obviously quite a big gap between this release and the previous Rocket Scientist release, apart from the box set as well that came out. So what’s everybody else been up to in those few years? You’ve been doing your solo stuff, what’s Mark and the other guys been up to?
EN: Mark has been pretty busy raising a family, actually. He has now two teenage kids, a boy and a girl, and his daughter, Emily, is now taken up by the music she’s playing bass and singing and turning into a great artist of her own. So Mark has kind of being nurturing her and mentoring her and all that sort of thing. He’s also been working for a company called Line 6.
JWS: Yes, they’re the digital processing people, aren’t they?
EN: Yes, exactly. So he’s been doing a product development of everything from digital amplifier models to modelling guitars where one guitar that can make the sound of everything from a Les Paul to a Stratocaster to a Guild 12 string to a sitar.
JWS: Yes, I’ve seen one of those.
EN: It’s pretty impressive I have say. Mark obviously uses that equipment primarily now on stage and when we record. He does have an amazing collection of classic guitars of course he has Martin 6 string, his Guild 12 string the Les Paul gold top and all that sort of thing so he does bring those out but he also uses the Line 6 devices quite a bit which sound good, I have to say.
JWS: Ok, that’s excellent.
EN: Don Schiff has been kind of doing what he’s always done, which is a lot of session work playing either the NS stick, the Chapman stick or just the regular old 4 string bass. He’s done some scoring as well, I know there was a web series called “The Guild” that he had written the theme to and I think he’d done some scoring for that as well. Kind of a science fiction show that actually I believe was pretty popular. He’s done a few things like that and he continues to work with Emmett Chapman the inventor of course on his designs. The latest thing Don is On Supernatural Highways is the video is this new NS stick instrument which is half fretless, so it’s 8 strings, the bottom 4 strings are fretless and the top 4 strings are fretted.
JWS: Oh wow.
EN: And it’s kind of a wild instrument and I think you need to have kind of a Gandalf the Wizard mentality to play an instrument like that but Don definitely has that and of course Emmett Chapman has that as well. So it was really interesting when Don brought that in. The other thing that was kind of a nice surprise, in the time that we’ve been away, is that Don learned the cello (laughs).
JWS: Oh right, yeah.
EN: Oh, by the way, I play cello now, so if you have any cello parts. And it was almost a little crazy when he said that because obviously people would take their whole lifetime to learn to play the cello. I’m not going to tell you that Don is suddenly Yo Yo Ma (World famous cello player) but he’s a very musical guy and he knows what he can do and what he can’t do and he’s really brought a nice element to the band with this and the second movement of Traveller on the Supernatural Highway it’s all a cello melody then that piece ends with a little cello choral and I actually wrote that whole section after doing another session with Don where he put some cello parts down and I thought “Wow, he really can play the cello!” So now I’m going to write cello parts. So I wrote this piece for him and he did it brilliantly on the album. I remember that there was a scene that we all kind of make fun of in “The Matrix” with Keanu Reeves where he’s learning about, you know, what it means to be in the Matrix and how they can download certain skills and there’s one kind of goofy scene where he makes a silly face and looks at the camera and says “I know kung fu!” And when Don like brought in the cello (laughs) it reminded me of that scene, it was like “Ah, I know how to play the cello!” he’d had it downloaded into him somehow.
JWS: The Matrix moment!
EN: Yes, exactly.
JWS: So, it must have felt really good when you all got back to put the track together
EN: You know it’s funny, we see each other socially all the time, and we’ve played on each other’s projects over the years, we did a Lana Lane album in 2012 with Mark and Don played on that, Mark played on the original Galactic Collective CD in 2010 and we’ve seen each other socially for no reason at all at time, but when we actually got together with instruments in hands and started recording, it had been several years since we were all together in the same room. It was really as if no time had passed and I think we’d just established that we had a good musical rapport with each other and that time doesn’t really get in the way of that, it feels like you just pick up where you left off given that that was five years ago before you start up again
JWS: But isn’t that always the way when you’re with long-time friends isn’t it
EN: I think so and I can even say the drummers that we used on this albums Gregg Bisonette and Gregg Ellis both of whom have played on other Rocket Scientists albums and other projects in the past, it had been a few years since I’d worked with them, in the case of Gregg Bisonette it think it had been six years, but I knew he was the guy for this album, so I called him up and had him come down and we just dove right into it again it was like no time had passed, so that’s one of the nice things about getting older, I suppose, you build up a nice network of friends and colleagues and you just pick up where you left off, I keep repeating that but . . It’s what it feels like
JWS: That’s good, I mean you wear quite a few hats really don’t you Erik, how on earth do you balance it all? ,you’ve got your own stuff going on, Lana’s stuff going on and the Rocket Scientists and all the stuff you’re doing with the Moog foundation etc., How do you balance it all??
EN: I always use the metaphor that I’m juggling three things, a chainsaw, A bowling ball and an apple and I have to take a bite out of one of them and you just have to be careful which one you take a bite out of otherwise it’s going to go very badly…(laughs) You know I go to work every day, I get up early in the morning and go to work in the studio or the rehearsal studio or wherever, I take it all very seriously, life is long but life is short, you can accomplish a lot in life but it can go quite fast too if you don’t spend your days wisely you’ll find yourself pretty far down the road without having accomplished a lot
JWS: It’s like that line from Pink Floyd that says, “and then one day you’ll find ten years have go behind you, no one told you when to run, you’ve missed the starting gun” (lyrics from Time from Dark side of the moon)
EN: That’s a brilliant line, it’s so true
JWS: They were what 23/24 when they wrote that but it’s so full of meaning basically
EN: It’s amazing when you think about that and all the lyrics on that album, wish you were here the album after is almost prophetic how young they were when they wrote that stuff
JWS: I’ve got the sleeve here and it’s a fantastic cover where did that concept come from
EN: Well thank you, we used to license favourite paintings of ours for album covers for years, probably the first 20 albums I’ve done in fact from a friend named Yatrik Yertr in Poland a wonderful surrealist and he also worked with Michael Parkes an American artist living in Spain, all wonderful artists but they didn’t create the paintings for our albums we found the paintings and paid the money so we could use them for our albums and happily they’ve all liked what we do and said yes. It got to the point around mid-2000’s where I thought ok we’ve been doing this long enough we now know enough talented artists of our own so let’s start doing original album covers instead of licensing them. So the first one that we did this with was the Looking backwards box set that we released in 2007. I wanted this idea of the band all in their kind of Victorian bowler hats looking out over the horizon or the ocean to convey the retrospective aspect to it, so we went about doing that, we did a photo shoot where we took that photo and then processed it to look more like a painting, put some things together and so forth, I was really happy with the way that came out, so from there we kept on doing original designs. So for this one I wanted to do something that really captured the title, and the title track, Traveller on the supernatural highway but I also wanted to reference two of the previous Rocket Scientists album covers. So of course you have the man in his bowler hat and case getting ready to make his journey down the supernatural highway and that goes back to Renay the Greek and the surrealist movement that we all love but it also goes back to the Looking Backwards cover as there’s a reference for that. Then sort of flanking our traveller you see these two huge highways going off in the distance and that’s a direct reference to the Brutal Architecture our second Rocket Scientists album cover from 1995 that had that kind of highway image on it and there’s various elements in the rest of it that reference the other albums as well some are a bit more subtle, but that was the idea. I worked with a wonderful graphic arts designer (Amber) who had worked with me on the Lana Lane Eldorado Hotel album and on the Galactic Collective limited edition and 369753153 / js sets, so I had this concept for what I wanted and I took to gathering images, some could be photos and some stock images and I started comping them together and then I sent the whole thing off to Amber and said now do this for real, what would make this look good and so as usual I drove her crazy and had her do like 20 revisions of it but in the end it was exactly what we all wanted, I’m really proud of the end result and I think we will continue on that graphic design path for the near future
JWS: It is a very striking cover, not a run of the mill sleeve so well done with that
EN: Thank You
JWS: Another question for you, a wish list question if you could work with anybody, any musician currently alive, who would you choose to work with?
EN: If you had asked me that ten years ago I’d have given you a different answer, I grew up listening to all the great 70’s Prog bands, so anyone from Yes, ELP, King Crimson or Procul Harum or Pink Floyd would be wonderful to work with any of those people, It probably would, I have actually got to know some of them Keith Emerson , Rick Wakeman of course but the older I get the less interested I am in that sort of thing, it’s fun to meet your heroes and to share the stage with them, which I’ve been lucky enough to do sometimes but when you’re making music that’s really an original creation and I think that sometimes that generation gap and even fame gap can get in the way. If I was to work with say Roger Waters perhaps , he’s brilliant artist , I don’t need to say that, everyone knows it but, Roger is my father’s age, he’s mega famous, probably mega wealthy, I hope he is I’m none of those things so if we were to sit down at the piano and write songs even though we’d be sitting right next to each other I think there would be a great amount of distance between us and I think that would get in the way of us making something really great. So at this stage of my life I’m not interested in doing that sort of thing, if something were to happen more naturally I mentioned this tour with Joe Lynn (Turner), Joe is a great guy, got he’s this super famous rock vocalist but it really didn’t come about that way, we were both asked to work with this band and we just got along as two guys in the band, so if something like that were to happen I’d be open to it, I don’t want to be one of those artists who goes around collecting famous people to play on their albums with the hope that’s going to sell more units or make me more credible, that’s not what makes me credible I mean I could I call Rick Wakeman and say Rick please would you play on my album and that’s going to be nice for Rick Wakeman and Rick’s fan get to hear more of Rick playing but what does that really do for me as an artist?? Nothing so I guess I’m really not interested in pursuing that too much, I hope that that all makes sense?
JWS: Yes that’s actually a very interesting answer, I mean there are a lot of almost musicians for hire that seem to rotate around a lot of projects one way or the other some with good results and some less so, your stance is unusual but it’s probably wise
EN: I’ve worked with a few famous people, when I did my Music Machine album in 2003 I was introduced to Buck Dharma (Blue Oyster Cult) through a journalist who said I know him well you’d get along you should meet so we met in LA at a trade show, we had lunch and we got along really well and I’d been working on a song and I said you’d sound great playing guitar on this would you mind playing a guitar solo on it, so I played him the song and he said it’s a great song would you mind if I tried singing it and of course I was star struck and so he came into my studio and did a session and it was really natural. He just really liked the song and really wanted to do a good job he was in his 50’s at the time and had recently started taking vocals lessons, which I thought was impressive for a guy who’d sold millions of albums and toured all over the world but he was interested in the ongoing journey of being a lifelong musician really still trying to perfect his craft, so that was really fantastic collaboration and it wasn’t a case of me trying to get a big name on my album to sell more units. So I’ve had a few situations like that even Gregg Bisonette the drummer on this EP he’s a pretty well-known drummer probably at this stage one of the most in demand session drummers in the world, but I didn’t hire him for the album because he was famous, I hired him because he’s the right guy and he’s great to work with, we have similar musical vocabulary and I know he can do exactly what the music needs, if you name is Gregg Bisonette or Joe Smith that doesn’t matter it’s the actual performance as that’s the thing that’s going to endure log after the fame fades away
JWS: Very much so, that’s interesting what you say about Buck Dharma taking up vocal lessons
When I was a kid we all grew up with rock and roll and the people we liked seemed much older than us and now the gap seems much narrower but they’re still making music that’s relevant and music that’s good so why not
EN: There are some musicians that get into it for the music and then others who get into it for the fame and the glory and the latter type come and go, sometime ways that are not ideal but the former type the Buck Dharma’s these people have their fame and sometimes it happens early in life, sometimes latter and it comes and goes but it doesn’t affect their commitment to their craft, whether you are selling millions of albums or a thousand albums you still do the same work and that’s the approach I’ve always had and I’ve been lucky enough to make records for over 20 years and happily there are still people that want to hear them and I can only attribute that to I try really hard, I go to work every day and try to be the best I can be and to grow and evolve as an artist, as an engineer and as a creative person in general and I hope that when I’m 70 I’ll still be doing it
JWS: Excellent, so have you heard anything recently that’s made you think wow that’s pretty good?
EN: Hmm let’s see, I think probably the last thing I heard that was really impressive was the band The Aristocrats
JWS: The Guthrie Govan band?
EN: Guthrie, I played with him for quite a while in the project and he’s just a phenomenal guitarist, music just falls out of the guy I’ve heard their album in a couple of different environments, one time I knew what I was listening to and another time I didn’t and I stopped and said wow what’s this and once I knew I said ah of course so that’s really impressive. I think on the more mass scale side the one artist I got into a few years ago is Lady Gaga. I first heard about her through pop culture and the crazy outfits and though here’s another one , then I heard her sing and thought hey she can actually sing and Lana and I saw this concert on television and it was a phenomenal performance and then I started listening to the songs and yes there’s definitely yes some pop cliché going on but a lot of the bones of the songs are just classic rock songs you can imagine a band like Queen or Gillan or Supertramp or bands like those doing, She really impressed me so I’ve kept an eye on her I won’t say everything she puts out is good as it’s not but for someone who is such a huge pop star to have that substance behind them is really surprising.
JWS: I’ve heard some of her stuff and seen a bit of her live show and yes she can sing there is a talent there it’s not just a manufactured in the studio – there is a real talent there
EN: I think and I don’t think this would ever happen but if she went out with a four piece rock band without all the glitter and flash it would be an amazing show, of course that’s not how you make the big bucks so probably won’t ever do that but I can definitely see the possibility of that
JWS: Who knows, so what’s next for Rocket Scientists then?
EN: I think we’re going to finish this album and keep the door open for the future, I’ve never really planned an end for the band, when we did the Revolution Road album in 2006 I thought well this might be the last thing we do because our lives were going indifferent directions and when we did the looking backwards set in 2007 I thought the same thing I now live 500 miles away I’ve got a lot of other things going on, who knows this could be the last thing we do and if it is what a nice way to leave a canon but here we are again and this could be the last thing as well, I’m not one of those people that say this is our farewell album this is the last thing we will ever do like Townsend and The Who doing their farewell tour five or six times so I don’t ever put a period at the end of the sentence with this band. I think it will continue as long as we are inspired and have the desire to make music and I hope that will continue for years to come
JWS: Well on that point I’ve run out of questions and would like to say a big thank you for making the time to talk to us and for giving such informative answers
EN: Thank you John wonderful talking to you