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woensdag 08 februari 2017
ERIK NORLANDER: On the 'Surreal' album

Interview with Erik Norlander by Geert Ryssen in 2016

The American keyboard player Erik Norlander lives and breathes music and has been busy with many bands and projects. He’s a musician’s musician with not only an open mind towards many styles, but he’s also an accomplished instrumentalist, arranger, producer and businessman running his own company. ‘Surreal’ was released late last year. His first solo album in seven years is another enjoyable piece of art that will make many a seventies prog fan happy. Erik is a nice partner to chat with and he’s always willing to share a lot of information on his works. Here we go:

First of all congratulations with your new album. It’s a very enjoyable piece of work! What made you decide to make another solo record after 7 years?
‘Thanks very much for the compliment on the Surreal album. It has been a long time since my last solo album, hasn’t it? It’s 7 years since The Galactic Collective album of 2009. My last solo album of original music was Seas of Orion from 2004, so that’s actually 12 years. Since then, I’ve made 4 studio albums with Rocket Scientists and 4 with my wife, Lana Lane. Then I think there are 3 or 4 live DVDs on top of those. I made an album in 2009 with a project called Roswell Six with sci-fi author, Kevin J. Anderson. And of course, I also spent 6 years playing with ASIA Featuring John Payne. We played a LOT of concerts, but the recording side was not as productive. Maybe one day those recordings will get finished and released. I also played for 2 years with a hard rock band called Big Noize with Joe Lynn Turner, Carlos Cavazo, Phil Soussan, Simon Wright and Vinny Appice (Simon the first year, Vinny the second year). So I have been quite busy all this time, even if my “solo” output has been a bit sparse! I have wanted to make another solo album every year, but as John Lennon wisely said, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”’

It may be a strange way to start an interview, but I haven’t seen much artwork that is such a clear illustration of the album title. Where did the idea of the umbrella came from?
‘Thanks very much for that. I think cover art is immensely important. How many times when growing up in the 70s and early 80s did we buy an album based only on the cover art? For me, it was many times. Then when the music is great, and when the music matches the cover … ah, that is perfection! What are some good examples of that? Maybe ELO – Out of Blue with the spaceship and combination command bridge and recording studio in the gatefold. Maybe Yes – Tales from Topographic Oceans, also beautiful and otherworldly. Then there are some more rock albums whose covers were quite mysterious, and it added a lot of intrigue to the music. Like Blue Öyster Cult – Fire of Unkown Origin and Black Sabbath – Mob Rules. Great covers! For Surreal, I wanted to do something inspired by the great Rene Magritte, who to me is the king of the surrealist movement in art. And I also like to include some subtle humor in the art, like Marc Chagall with his upside down characters and that sort of thing. So for Surreal, we have a tentacle holding up an umbrella with a storm underneath the umbrella that is sheltering the unseen tentacle guy from the sun. It the opposite of what an umbrella is made for, right? I also love the whole Victorian / Edwardian era, and the iconography of the guy in the bowler hat with the briefcase and the umbrella. Magritte did beautiful things with that kind of imagery. I used that concert on two of the Rocket Scientists albums, of course: Looking Backward and Supernatural Highways.’

Was ‘Surreal’ the original working title for the album and why did you choose this title?
‘The title came very late in the album development. Some of the songs, like “The Galaxy Collectors,” were written quite a long time ago. I think I wrote that one in 2006, right after the Rocket Scientists – Revolution Road album. I worked on the song that end up being called “Surreal” for a long time. I had the lyrics written, but I could not settle on a title. Originally I wanted to call it “Déjà Vu,” but of course there is a brilliant song and album by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young with that title already. Then I thought of adding something to it, and keeping the French origins of the expression (which we also use in English). So for a while, it was called “Surréalisme Déjà Vu.” But that felt too long and maybe even too contrived. So then one day it simply became “Surreal!” The fit was so good, that it naturally became the album title. As for “why,” I can say with great confidence that my entire music career has been surreal. My first big break in the music business came from Japan. We started making albums for a record company in Tokyo and then of course touring there. It was like being beamed to another planet! Then I’ve found myself playing concerts in the most strange and beautiful places. I wrote a song in 1999 called “Rome is Burning.” Then only 2 years later in 2001, I found myself playing that song in the city of Rome! In 2004, at the end of a long European tour, we ended up in St. Petersburg, Russia, and we were able to film it for what became the Live in St. Petersburg DVD. In 2009, I did a tour with Big Noize across Spain, something like 7 shows in 8 days, and then at the end, we flew down to Tenerife and Grand Canary in the Canary Islands for 2 shows there. If you look at the map, that’s technically in Africa! Now that was truly surreal.’

These days it is quite easy to record an album without any other musicians involved. One of the great things about this album is that we get to hear a real band playing. I suppose that brings out the producer in you more than anything else?
‘I’m really glad you noticed that. The live band feeling was really important to me on Surreal. I had toured with this rhythm section, Nick LePar (d) and Mark Matthews (b) for 6 years, and we really developed a great live sound after so much time on the road. Then both guitarists, Jeff Kollman and Mark McCrite, toured with my solo band in 2014 where they became part of the groove. And then in the fall of 2015, guitarist Alastair Greene from The Alan Parsons Project joined my tour when Jeff was off in Japan on another tour. So he joined the family and became part of the sound, too. And on that same tour in 2015, Nick the drummer couldn’t make it due to some family issues, so my old friend Greg Ellis joined the tour on drums and percussion. Greg of course goes all the way back to my first solo album, Threshold. He’s also on Into the Sunset and Seas of Orion in addition to the Rocket Scientists – Looking Backward and Supernatural Highways albums.’

You even brought in an extra percussion player! Please tell us about your decision to do that.
‘Well, as I mentioned, Greg Ellis goes all the way back to my Threshold album from 1997. We have been friends a very long time, and we continue to do sessions together outside of these albums. When he toured with me, Alastair Greene (g) and Mark Matthews (b) in 2015, the chemistry between all of us was just phenomenal. So I really wanted that on the Surreal album. But there was no way I was going to jettison drummer Nick LePar and guitarists Jeff Kollman and Rocket Scientist Mark McCrite! I even brought in a second Rocket Scientist, Don Schiff, to add cello and fretless NS/Stick on one song to continue what we started with the two 2014 Rocket Scientists albums. So as you see in the credits, all of these wonderful musicians are part of the Surreal album.’

Should ‘Surreal’ be considered as a conceptual work?
‘It is certainly a musical concept. It’s structured like a concerto with 6 movements including an overture and a finale. Yes, and I can picture Nigel Tufnel from Spinal Tap saying this! I know it sounds really pompous and contrived, but hey, that’s how I think! I introduce themes in the overture, explore and develop those themes throughout the album, then reprise the themes in the finale. So for me, there is always a musical thread running through the whole album. It definitely is not just a collections of songs. But beyond that, there is no lyrical or metaphorical concept to it. I couldn’t tell you that it is anything like Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” or The Who – Tommy.’

Did you start working on the compositions for this album at a certain point in time with the intention to write an album or has the music grown in bits and pieces during many years?
‘I was ready to make a new solo album in 2006 right after I finished my Hommage Symphonique covers album. I wrote the song that would become, “The Galaxy Collectors,” in that year. That was the first song written for this album, and “Unearthly” came after that. Then “Suitcase and Umbrella” was next, and it was originally intended to be a requiem, something motivated by extreme sadness and despair. I think a lot of the melancholy still comes through in that song. Then as I mentioned earlier, “Surreal” came later on and really defined the album. “El Gran Final,” with the title in Spanish as a tribute to my great friends in Baja, California, was the last piece of the puzzle, as the finale always is for me.’

Although everybody is complaining these days about the lack of sales of cd’s, you still produce a high quality release with nice artwork and booklet. Is there a vision behind that policy?
‘I make my albums for myself as much as for everyone else. I don’t want to release anything done with half measures. I grew up with the wonderful LPs of the 70s, and back then, the artwork and liner notes were a huge part of the album. I would sit for hours with my headphones on, putting the needle down on certain songs, or maybe just listening to the whole album straight through (flipping it over halfway, of course, as we did!), going to the next album, seeing how one album linked to another album, all of that real music fan stuff that I hope I still have in me. So whether I sell a few thousand units or 10 million units, the vision is the same.’

The photo with all your gear, including the vintage synthesizers is very nice. How do you manage to keep all this in working order. I mean, are there still enough people capable of maintaining/repairing these precious instruments?
‘Ah, you got right to the heart of it! It’s easy to buy old instruments on eBay and at second-hand shops. But to keep them working, that is the real challenge! It is an ongoing process, much like owning a classic car. You don’t just buy a classic Ferrari or Porsche, put gas it in occasionally and expect it to run perfectly. It needs maintenance, upkeep, love! It is the same with my instruments. My modular Moog is from 1967, the year I was born! My Hammond organ is from 1939, before my father was born! And then of course even most of the analog synths from the 70s and 80s are quite old when you do the math. I have a lot of friends who are brilliant engineers and technicians. Some of them even go on tour with me, like my friend, August Worley, who used to work with Bob Moog at Moog Music and also toured with Emerson, Lake and Palmer. So I have my own “little black book” with all these wonderful friends and acquaintances that keep my Ferraris running, so to speak!’

Your influences go from keyboard dominated British seventies prog (ELP, …) to German ‘krautrock’ type of sounds and flows. Where does Erik Norlander come in?
‘I think our influences are a big deal when we are younger, and as you said, I have a strong link to 70s British Prog and the German Krautrock and even Berlin School styles. But as we mature as artists, I think it essential that we become our own thing. I just did an interview with my local home town newspaper for the Surreal album, and they asked me what genre I consider myself. I ended up saying, “progressive rock … I guess!” But I don’t even know if that such an accurate description of what I do. There are surely rock elements, metal elements, classical elements, electronic elements … it’s all a big Hungarian goulash of styles all mixed together. I hope in the end that it is simply “good” music and not a part of some kind of stylistic or cultural movement. I started playing music professionally in the 80s when Ronald Reagan was the US president and there was a Soviet Union. Times have changed a lot – much for the better when you think about Reagan and the USSR … ugh! – but my musical vision remains the same.’

Any future plans to make another album with Lana? (It’s great to hear her voice again on the title track!) Rocket Scientists? Roswell Six? Other projects?
‘Lana wants to make a new album, so hopefully we will start that soon. It is always so easy with her. The music just flows, and she is such an amazing singer, the recording process is super easy. Rocket Scientists? I don’t know. Mark McCrite and Don Schiff are dear, lifelong friends, and of course both of them are on Surreal as well. We made the Looking Backward box set in 2007 to sort of tie up the loose ends of the past. I thought that was it for the band back then. But then we decided to do something to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the first Rocket Scientists album from 1993, and we ended up creating so much music that we released 2 albums in 2014 (yes, a year late!). It’s quite easy with those guys, too. We’ve been friends so long and have worked together so much, we can get to musical destinations very quickly and with a lot of shared focus. But everyone’s lives change so much. We don’t live in the same city anymore, the guys have their own families and their concerns, other careers … it’s not the same as it was in the early 90s. I guess that’s how it is with any band. The times change, and it’s hard to maintain the same kind of output you had when the band started. I’m completely okay with that, too. If we end up coming together for another Rocket Scientists album, that will be excellent. And if we don’t, then the Refuel album is a marvelous swan song.’

Do you still have a future with John Payne’s Asia or the Galactic Collective? And what’s the situation with the Last In Line project?
‘Well, The Galactic Collective was simply an Erik Norlander solo album based on a specific body of work. A lot of people mistook that for a band name – it never was intended to be that. So that album has continued here with Surreal, my next solo album. I hope to make many more, of course! Asia Featuring John Payne … I don’t know. I felt like it was totally dead when John started his Las Vegas show. Then there was this goofy covers album that was recorded as a John Payne solo album, but was then re-branded as “Asia” for marketing purposes, I suppose. I really hated that, and it caused a lot of problems between us. But now there are rumblings that the band might start up again and that John might finish the long-awaited original album that we all recorded a few years ago. Who knows! The Last in Line band has been a great experience and a lot of fun. I’ve known drummer Vinny Appice for over 15 years, and we’ve done a lot of projects together. The vocalist, Andrew Freeman, is also a friend. And now that Jimmy Bain is gone, the bass player is Phil Soussan who I played with for 2 years in Big Noize. So that’s a very nice group of friends there, and we have a lot of fun playing and traveling together. And of course the superstar in the band is guitarist Vivian Campbell. I’ve really enjoyed playing with Vivian and getting to know him. He’s a great guy and of course a brilliant guitarist. It looks like we are doing a European tour starting later this year, and I hope the band will also record a second album after that. I think there’s a decent chance it will happen.’

Your most recent gig was with Last In Line. Did you enjoy that? How do you relate to the music of Dio? In his solo efforts there was only a limited space for keyboards.
‘I really like the band. The studio albums indeed did not have a lot of keyboards. But if get down to the core of the songs, they all have that familiar Deep Purple / Rainbow style to them. So it’s very natural to add overdriven Hammond organ and some clever synth parts. As long as you totally understand the guitar parts and how the guitarist plays, there are great opportunities. And of course I also make a big deal out of all the intros on songs like “Holy Diver” and “Egypt.” Even the songs from their new studio album – which was done before I joined – also benefit from some nice organ and Mellotron parts. It took some vision, but I really think I have carved out a nice musical space in that band.’

Do you have plans to play the music of ‘Surreal’ live?
‘Yes, and I can even tell you that it has happened already! Last year when I did my annual Mexico tour in the fall, we played 3 of the songs from the album. This was a really great way to give them a workout on stage and in front of an audience, not only for me, but for the other musicians as well. I think that’s a big reason why the album has such a great “live” feeling to it. Not just a bunch of studio overdubs.’
Any chance we see you in Europe again?
‘I hope so. I really love Europe, and playing gigs there is always a privilege for me. It looks like Last in Line will be doing a more touring in Europe later this year, and then I hope to do some dates with my solo band as well if the stars line up correctly!’

You have your own company ‘Think Tank Media’ and that seems to work fine for you. Can you tell us more about it?
‘Think Tank Media is my production company and record label. I started it in 1992 when we made the first Rocket Scientists album. It is basically the “business side” of my music we handle licensing, publishing and of course promotion and distribution. Lana and I have a lot of great people that work with us. For example, our publicist, Sandy, has been with us for over 10 years now. She also helps with publishing and even occasional concert and festival bookings. It’s so important to have a great team. No one can do this on their own, especially continuing for so many years!’

Interview: Geert Ryssen

Geplaatst door Vera op woensdag 08 februari 2017 - 22:05:27
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