First of all, let me thank you for taking the time to do this interview!
(Robert) A pleasure!
1. Great band name, how did that come about ?
(Robert: guitars, vocals, keyboards, flute) That is an interesting one. For a number of years, the core members of the band played in a UK Yes Tribute band called Fragile who, amongst other things, played with Steve Howe from Yes in 2005, 2006 and 2007 (thought I’d better get that one in). Every year since about 2000 we have done a European run or two, regularly playing at the marvellous Spirit of 66 Club in Verviers, Belgium. It was miles and miles on the French and Belgian motorways that did it. Credit must be given to Steve Carney (lead vocals) for the concept. He noticed the “Aquaplanage” road signs every few 100m and loudly proclaimed, “let’s do some original music and call it Aquaplanage!”.
(Steve) Having come up with the name, we then had to (in true prog style) come up with a concept and meaning! So, if you go to the band website www.aquaplanage.com all is revealed. The name fits the music and has a bright shiny quality about it, which is nice.
2. Do you find it important to be classified as a progband and /or do you see yourself as a progband? Or you couldn’t care less about classification genre wise… as long as people recognise/like your music?!
(Robert) Knowing how the music business works and that things like to be pigeonholed, I see prog as a good place to be. Although, I must point out we did not intend to overtly make the album proggy (more later on this). However, given our collective influences, it is hardly surprising it turned out that way! I would like to think that the album has appeal in the wider world.
(Steve) It’s not important to me, but I don’t object and indeed it’s a compliment in my view to be associated with a genre that has been innovative and influential. To rub shoulders with the idols of my youth is a good place to be, and moreover prog is hip again!
3. Do you find cover art important? Please elaborate.
(Robert) We wanted a quality product so we felt it right to get a quality artist – Ed Unitsky no doubt. Ed speaks very little English as you may be aware, so I was dealing with Nancy, his manager in Illinois most of the time, relaying concepts of what I wanted it to look like. Somehow, Ed got the message without the need of words and what he has come up with I think sits alongside any of the best Prog Art.
(Steve) I echo Robert’s take on this, and the work of Roger Dean and Patrick Woodruffe amongst others set a benchmark that continues to this day. The visual should be as interesting as the sonics in my view."
Robert Illesh (guitars, vocals, keyboards, orchestral
arrangements, flute, programming)
4. Which comes first in your process of composing/creating music, the lyrics or the music?
(Robert) As a guitar player, I tend to write by coming up with licks and riffs and melodies which sit in my great cosmic bank until I find a home for them. I have a tendency to stew ideas, sometimes for years, before they see the light. Steve (lead vocals) tends to write in the traditional way of coming up with a concept and set of strong lyrics. Jon (bass) uses his technology and coupled with his weird brain often teaches us to see outside the box. Tom (additional guitars) is, as yet, a largely untapped resource who needs to be milked because there is a lot of music in him (and he is not getting any younger ha ha!). So, in summary, collectively, for as many schools of thought as there are with regard to songwriting is as many ways as we use to write songs. Aqua writing sessions, which usually occur at Tom’s, are very fruitful sessions where ideas run as thick as a tropical downpour.
(Steve) Sometimes for me it’s a case of responding with melodies to Rob’s ideas, and as he says, sometimes its about bringing a formulated idea to the table. We work in a very hybrid way that draws on each members’ strengths, and we develop our music collectively. Nonetheless, “Dr Bob” is the guru who brings our disparate ideas to a cohesive whole and guides the overall musical vision.
5. Which bands/artists/genre would you name as your inspirational source? Please elaborate and individual perspectives would be great.
(Robert): well I’m stuck in the 70s with my Jethro Tull, Focus, Rush etc. etc. But also some of the mainstream bands of the 60s such as the Who and the Beatles. However, my leanings go into classical/baroque, flamenco, jazz, world stuff.
(Steve): Inevitably Yes and prog more generally. I am a bit like Dr Bob in that I look to the past for inspiration, but there’s some good new generation prog bands out there. More widely I like innovative musicals such as Wicked, and film soundtracks such as the recent Sweeny Todd release (Depp was fab). I also like traditional stuff and world music. I'll pass on gangster rap.
(Jon): I love the old prog bands such as Rush (my main bass playing influence), Genesis and Yes but more recently have been getting into contemporary bands such as Porcupine Tree, Dream Theater and IQ.
(Tom): I’m a self confessed old rocker who prefers good rocking mainstream stuff like Whitesnake, Toto. Often, unsuccessfully, I try to put a lid on the more outlandish proggy elements in our music.
Steve Carney (lead vocals)
6. The Mellotron, has become an icon..a pseudonym in progmusic circuits. What’s your thought on that and the particular instrument?
(Robert) Yeah, the sound defines an era. There is mellotron (well mellotron samples) on Aqua – most prominently accompanying the real flute in “Ode to Grey Mornings” and as a counterpoint to the vocal melody in the first half of “Nature’s Sunday”. When mixed in properly, it is a haunting sound.
(Steve) My life was changed by the Mellotron. Hearing that ghostly sweeping sound was otherworldly and made me see endless possibilities in music. For me the ultimate example is ‘Starless’ by Crimbo, absolutely fantastic.
7. If the ultimate choice were given to you, which comes first, live performances or studio work? I realise that is 2 sides to one story, but please do tell...elaborate!?
(Robert) Difficult question because I enjoy both and both can give rise to very different creative outlets. “Live” is great for the sheer energy that is exchanged in the moment which can take you right into the moment (I’m getting cosmic here). “Studio” is also great – although there is not the same sense of urgency, over time you can come up with something great. I like to craft songs down to every last semi-quaver, like a renaissance painter. Ultimate choice? Well I think “live” tips the balance, but only just.
(Steve) Performing live is seat of the pants and can be the most amazing buzz. But I also love the creativity of the studio, so for me they are two distinct parts of the same story.
8. In many interviews Beatles comes up as the ultimate forerunners of prog!? In other words...without Beatles, no progscene as we see it today! Do you concur? Please elaborate!
(Robert) I certainly agree that the Beatles were one of the contributors to prog. I would also bring focus to the Beach Boys and the genius of Brian Wilson. But, as I hinted at in that last question, I think it was artists being able to spend time in the studio and not just record it in two takes that really opened up the possibilities.
(Steve) I agree that the Beatles had a seminal influence, but I think as Rob says it was a number of things including technological advances and a cultural disposition towards fresh ideas. A baby of the 60s that became an unruly child in the 70s!
9. In a given concert, with you headlining, whom or which band/artist would you most like/love to see on that imaginative poster! Please feel free to name several!
(Robert): Focus! With Jan Ackerman back in the fold!
(Steve): A Yes line up featuring Anderson, Squire, Wakeman, Rabin and Bruford. It never happened and would have been fascinating to hear!
(Jon): Devo…. Work that one out!
(Tom): Same as the good Dr plus Gary Moore to keep it cool…
10. In this day and age of progcircuits, I guess most of your fans, friends & musicians would like to learn the instruments of your choice, I'm of course talking make and brand. Please elaborate individually!
(Robert): Gibson Les Paul Standard Heritage Sunburst (1989), Fender Telecaster 1963 re-issue – these were the two guitars of choice on Aqua, although I did get my 1994 US strat, hotwired with a mini-humbucker, for a couple of songs. Martin D16 for acoustic moments and also … a cheap old Hondo acoustic that I got as a present for finishing my O-levels, on the very end of Nature’s Sunday.
(Jon): Rickenbacker 4001cs with Zoom effects and a Hartke 3500 amp (4x10 and 1x15 speaker cabs)
(Tom): US Strat with lace sensors + Yamaha SG 2000 Boss Effects & Laney Amps (Britastic)
11. I think your album is great, I especially like the first epic track..I hear a blend of Gentle Giant / Tull among others, I that a fair assessment?
(Robert) Thank you very much. “Ode” is an interesting song. It started its life in about 1998 when as a fledgling pro-musician with time on my hands, I used to walk my little dog in the big park in Slough, West of London. Anyone who knows the region knows it’s a bit grey there, so that’s where I coined the phrase “Ode to Grey Mornings”. I noticed the magpies and decided to explore the theme of sorrow which surrounds the superstition of seeing a solitary magpie. It wasn’t until a couple of years later, well into 2002 really, that Steve Carney took this subliminal essence and wove a story set in pre-first world war rural England about two young lovers’ experiencing a loss of innocence, dealing with and overcoming their personal demons. Phew! And there is some music in the song as well! Well, just a bit! Tull, Giant, fair assessment. I wanted to explore something that could go down as a “Thick as a Brick Part II, Gerald Bostock grows up and meets girls”! I’m joking of course.
(Steve) Rob’s said it all! “Ode” is something I am really proud of and has so many references. It pays homage to the great moments of prog, but has a quality of its own. Gentle Giant? why not!!"
12. Overall, the album brims with excellent guitar, keyboards & vocals! But also fine drums and bass play.
The production comes across crystal clear, which in my book is superb! Please tell, how do you guys work in the studio? And do you all have a say in the final mix?
(Robert) Following on from what we said about songwriting, after our writing sessions, it was my self appointed job to bring some sense to this as Executive Producer. Back in about 2005 I set up my own studio. I actually created demos of every single song, played all the parts down to the last semi-quaver, programmed the drums and sang. In this respect this is common with what Pete Townshend used to do for the Who. Gradually, the band would then come and go and replace my demo parts with their proper parts. The last piece was hiring the string section to play most prominently on the song “Aquaplanage” and also “Sands of Time” and a few other bits.
So I produced the entire album and only gave it away to the master Rob Aubrey for the final mastering. Jon the bass player did his parts at home & mailed me the CD. Max Hunt who guests keyboards (well, plays the fiddly bits that I didn’t play) did the session in his studio & emailed me the midi files which I rendered up on my synths. So, the traditional thing of going in the studio and blasting it out in two takes was totally out of the window. True to the spirit of good prog, I think it was necessary to build the album over time, knit all the little fiddly bits in and weave it together. I will confess that the whole band was never together in its entirety at any time. That said, I think there is a good live feel because everything is played live, with the exception of a few choice samples here and there. Going out as Fragile meant we had already acquired the chemistry of a good tight live band.
Artistically, people went pretty much according to my first demos and there was never any squabbling about ideas. Sure, parts were embellished, additional vocal harmonies were thrown in, an already heavy kitchen sink was made even more dangerous.
I think this represents the magic about the Aquaplanage working unit. We can come up with song ideas, sit on them for a couple of years, not even talk to each other for a few months (as we do live quite far away from each other), I will make a demo, additional ideas will spontaneously arise and just naturally fit in and an album evolves.
Tom Dawe (guitar)
13. Genre wise, I find the album very varied, some tunes is clearly prog, some art rock and I even hear some poplike tunes in there!! Is that on purpose or do you "just" create songs/tunes, never mind the genre as long as it is good well composed music??
(Robert) As I said at the beginning, we did not overtly go out to write an album of prog. We had an aim of collectively writing some original music, but most importantly, writing some songs. So in that sense, Steve took the helm and came up with what I think are some great hooks.
It is a valid criticism that some people wage on us in saying “Aquaplanage” struggles to find an identity. This, in part, is due to having a studio with too many knobs, too many guitars, too many keyboard sounds; and no producer or record label to keep things under a lid! But then, listen to many bands’ first albums and you find a similar explosion of art going down different directions. Jethro Tull’s “This Was” comes to mind especially.
I like to experiment with different sounds and different production techniques – that is my identity. It would make me miserable to make an album all on the same guitar sound. For example, “Sands of Time” is a full on modern exposition where although the guitars and strings and bamboo flute thingy are real, the drums are actually all programmed and we have found a multitude of samples to throw in the pot. To the contrary, “Nature’s Sunday” is a more traditional live guitar-bass-drums-keyboards thing.
So in conclusion, we just let the art flow without being hung up about fulfilling the agenda of any particular genre.
14. Are you guys classical trained or self-taught? Maybe both??
(Robert): I was lucky enough to receive classical and jazz training from the maestro Winston Morson when I was in my teens. I think the classical thing underpins my love of richly layered music with lots going on and lots of changes.
(Steve) Self taught, musically ignorant and that's worked for me!
(Jon): Totally self-taught but have played with classically trained musicians all my life and some of it must have rubbed off.
(Tom): Mainly self-taught with a bit of help Henry Marsh (guitar maestro) .
15. What is your goal as a band? What are your dreams made of, musician wise?
(Robert) World domination of course! More seriously, what motivates me is nothing more than the process of music itself in the ability to go out and do it live and also to create something fantastic in the studio. For me, a way to shine light in the world. To sell lots of albums and fill theatres around the world is also nice!
16. Finally, here’s your chance to write a comment/statement to your fans, friends of progmusic and our readers! Feel free to elaborate!?
(Robert) Thank you for your continuing interest in Aquaplanage and may it bring you the same, if not more, pleasure that it has given us in bringing it to you!
(Steve) Be pompous, be proud!
(Jon) Thanks for listening and make sure you spread the word.
(Tom) Keep the faith and there’s more to come X.
Thanx so very much and keep the excellent music coming :-)) Tonny.
(Robert) Thanks for having us & watch out for Aqua II!