An Interview With Metaphor

“If nothing else about our music, I can say that it’s done without compromise and consequently there is virtually no chance we’ll get commercial radio play or hit the big (or even medium!) time” – Malcom Smith

And that’s the way music should be done. Unfortunately, this wouldn’t work with a major label. But the result is one incredible album, in all fairness, one of the best ones I’ve ever heard. I absolutely wanted to talk to someone from the band to find out more about it and about them. Also to find out what their future plans were.

So I had an interesting phone conversation with Malcolm Smith, the band’s guitarist. Also, I contacted vocalist and lyricist, John Mabry, to find out more about the album’s interesting concept.

Guitar Noise: You guys started off as a Genesis tribute band, didn’t you?

Malcolm Smith: We did a lot of the great, old Genesis material, focusing on their music up to “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.” We ended up having about three hours of material and we performed it a couple of times. It was a lot of fun.

Having played that music so long and in such depth it’s hard for me to listen to it now, since I listened to it so much when we practiced it. We did some of the theatrics, but it was the music that we were able to get the feel for.

GN: You have the Hackett style down to a T.

MS: Well, it’s not from any design, of course, it’s just what I used to listen to a lot. I really love that sound with the volume pedal. I also listened to a lot of Camel and a lot of Yes, and others. I’d say my three favourite guitarists, in no order, are Steve Hackett, Steve Howe, and Steve Morse. For some reason they’re all named Steve, don’t know why…

Hackett was one of the first guys who did the volume pedal technique. He was also, by many accounts, the first to do a hammer-on. Anyway, he uses the volume pedal to great effect. I especially like the big fat, heavily over-driven sound, but with no attack that I get by using the volume pedal. It’s almost a synthesized kind of sound. It makes for a very different kind of guitar sound, when you don’t have that sharp attack. It’s helped me to make my guitar a more expressive instrument. I’m really able to put more emotion into certain notes that way. I listened to the Hackett style a lot as I was learning to play, so I just naturally incorporated it into my sound. I use it as a volume control as well.

What’s also fun to do with the volume pedal is use it with clean chords. Again it has a very different sound. And trying to do it with harmonics, sounds come out that you never would have expected. So it provides this other colour that you can play with to try and make the most expressive sound possible and to try and get a variety of sounds.

GN: It’s a nice thing to have a concept album.

MS: Yeah. Our great vocalist and lyricist, John Mabry, he just took the bull by the horns and came up with this cool concept that brought the whole CD together. John also wrote the two more acoustic-style songs on the CD. It was nice to do a concept album; it’s sort of a progressive rock tradition to do at least one!

I think our next CD probably won’t be a concept album. With Starfooted, the concept was sort of a big deal that came to the forefront of the creative process when John started writing the lyrics, you know, and it just developed that way naturally.

GN: The sound is very Genesis-like in a way. Not like what Genesis sounded like, but what they would sound like today had (Peter) Gabriel and (Steve) Hackett stayed.

MS: That’s quite a compliment, and perhaps true because Genesis is certainly an important part of our influence. As Metaphor’s main composer, I had a lot of this old Genesis-type stuff just built up inside of me for the past twenty or thirty years that I really wanted to put into a CD. Everything I enjoyed and loved in progressive rock came out with this CD. But this music represents only the beginning of the band’s musical development.

We’re working on the new CD right now and I believe it’s a bit of a departure from our traditional Genesis-influenced sound, simply because we are progressing and maturing musically as a band. It’s somewhat different and I think that listeners will be appreciative of this progression in our music.

Our stuff, I think it’s kind of honest music with that Genesis feel to it. It’s original in its concept and in its execution. We’ve really shown that we have our own ideas. And we’re moving on them.

(Talking about Galileo Records)

MS: Galileo is a great independent record company, run by Patrick Becker in Switzerland. They’re very supportive of progressive music. They’re not too worried-like the rest of us in progressive rock-they’re not too worried about making a lot of money. They’re just concerned with helping progressive music get out to the world. And they do an excellent job of it.

They have a good variety of quality progressive rock on their roster, and we’re happy to be part of Galileo.

GN: Any plans for any shows in the near future or are you concentrating on the album?

MS: We’re just setting up for the next recording. We all have our real lives and our jobs, so we aren’t able at this point to rehearse enough to give shows. Our main goal is to work on the material for the new album. Our secondary goal is to keep the old stuff alive. We definitely want to play live. We’re willing to finance it ourselves and put together a good show. But it’s a matter of a lack of time.

GN: Peter Gee of Pendragon mentioned last year that only a few months earlier had Nick Barrett left his bread run.

MS: Yeah, it’s next to impossible to actually make a living in progressive rock. I’d say there are three tiers in progressive rock: Tier one, aside from the dinosaurs (bands like Genesis, ELP, and Yes) has bands like The Flower Kings, Spock’s Beard, and a few others which apparently manage to make a living by doing a lot of shows, releasing a lot of great, great material. Then there’s the second tier with bands that do a few shows, sell pretty well, and maybe break even financially. And then (laughing) there’s us: few or no performances, some sales, but certainly not breaking even monetarily! I think there are a LOT of prog rock bands with us in that third tier!

But the CD has done pretty well. It’s sold a couple of thousand copies worldwide and that’s not bad. Much of the distribution was set up through the Internet, which gets it great exposure to potential customers.

GN: I have a feeling, with all these bands and all these labels, that this music could be coming back.

MS: I hope you’re right! I’d say there are more progressive rock bands out there now than there were in its heyday. In many ways, with modern home and studio recording technology and the Internet, it’s perhaps easier to create and distribute the music, assuming the song writing and execution talent is there.

GN: A lot of this stuff could play on the radio and it would be really huge.

MS: Yes, Spock’s Beard could do that.

GN: And The Flower Kings.

MS: They could really crossover. Not an issue for Metaphor!

If nothing else about our music, I can say that it’s done without compromise and consequently there is virtually no chance we’ll get commercial radio play or hit the big (or even medium!) time. Obviously we’re not even trying to put out music that will necessarily sell. We’re just trying to make music that is interesting and sounds good to us. If people like it, then that’s great.

I’ll tell you what: If we only sold a hundred copies of that album, the band would still be here and we’d still write and record music. It’s nice that people like it, we’ve gotten a lot of great reviews, but I’m not going to change the music to try to appeal to an audience, even a prog rock audience. That lack of concern with any notion of commercial viability is part of the essence of creative music, anyway.

GN: It’s a great attitude.

MS: Oh yeah! Not very profitable, but…

GN: It’s good for us who listen to it. I notice on the CD that you used a guitar synthesizer.

MS: Yes, I have a Roland GR-09, not the most current generation, it’s one generation back. I use the guitar synth mostly to color the guitar sound.

A lot of times you’ll hear the synthesized sound in sync with the guitar part. For instance, on the CD, every time you hear a marimba in unison with the guitar, that’s the guitar synthesizer.

Whenever you hear a twelve-string guitar or nylon string guitar on the CD, that’s the synthesizer. There’s also GR-09 cello at the beginning of track number 3, “Starfooted in a Garden of Cans.” Other times you’ll hear a bell-tone, or a choir sound, or an organ in unison with the guitar, and those are all guitar synth as well. So, I try to mix up the sounds quite a bit.

There are some parts where I use the synthesizer sound alone for a melody. It’s been a nice addition. I do have to restrain myself sometimes. There’s so much you can do with it, you could go overboard easily with it. Some would probably say I have gone overboard, as I do use a fair amount of it.

Of course, almost all of the synthesizer sounds you hear are from our great keyboardist Marc Spooner, who also writes some wonderful material for Metaphor.

GN: There are a lot of time changes on the album and I was wondering how you manage to do it with your drummer if you play any of this stuff direct?

MS: I think what it amounts to is the musicians need to get the feel for it. Initially when I write some material, for example, there is a bare-bones arrangement that’s there, along with the less-common time signatures. Then the band works those out using tapes and written scores, and the arrangement comes together. We count the parts out and figure it out, and it usually works.

But the main point is getting a feel for it and going along with that feel. Then it becomes a more natural thing to play. After rehearsing it for a while and going with that feel, it becomes very natural and fun to go through the interesting time signatures.

We purposely use a lot of time changes. In my material I like to try and provide some surprises. I want to turn the music in a few different directions, go around some unexpected corners, and a lot of that is in the time-changes and other dynamics. So the band gets together and we count it out if we need to. We all have tapes and practice it, and I print out the score for those that want it. Our drummer, Bob Koehler, often likes to see it in writing. He’s a very good musician, and knows music theory maybe better than anyone else in the band. So I often print the stuff out for him and he gets a sense of “Oh, that’s what I’m doing!”

A way of making our new material more interesting is having the keyboards, the guitar, and the drums going in different time signatures while the drums might do a straight 4/4. This gives you the polyrhythmic aspect which is becoming more a part of our sound in the new material.

The bass player featured on the CD, Jim Post, incidentally, is not the same guy we have now. He was great, but moved too far away to rehearse. Our new guy, Jim Anderson, has fit in extremely well. He was able to pick up the old stuff without missing a beat, and contributes greatly to the new material, so we’re really lucky to have him.

GN: The next CD will be with Galileo?

MS: Most likely, I don’t see any changes in that respect. The new stuff is being rehearsed right now and it’s coming along well. Parts of it are a bit more technical. And it also has more rhythmic changes in the time signatures. Sort of stretches our ability to play in the time changes. It’s fun to try and do, and I’m very excited about putting this new stuff on CD.

* I emailed John Mabry and asked him to expand on the concept of the album. Here is his response:

Starfooted tells the story of the Gnostic myth (according to THE APOCRYPHON OF JOHN, a 3rd century Gnostic scripture discovered in a cave at Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945). We’re not espousing any religion or anything, we’re just telling the story. And, this isn’t your standard religious fare!

According to the Gnostics, God is the bad guy, the snake is the good guy, and we are all living on a prison planet guarded over by evil angels where we reincarnate perpetually. Those who discover the secret (that the creator is actually a twisted son of a bitch who wants to keep us enslaved, and what’s more, wants to be worshiped and praised for it!) have a chance to escape this dire world, and be rejoined with the true God in the world of Light.

Starfooted renders this rich, disturbing religious fantasy as a progressive rock opera. It’s a template for life in postmodernism. Like Sophia (a character in the story), we have found ourselves lost in relativistic chaos, and have often made a mess of things in trying to impose order. Samael (another character, A-J) and his Archons represent the multinational corporations and politicians; pretenders to the throne of the world, trying to keep us ignorant of our true plight and coerce us politically, religiously, and morally.

On the surface Starfooted tells the story of the myth straight, from the descent of Sophia into matter, to the escape of a modern-day neo-Gnostic into the glory of the Pleroma. Just beneath the surface, though, we’re saying a lot about life for the world’s first generation to truly internalize a post-modern perspective.