Interview Abel Ganz:
"At the end it's only the music that matters. Either we've made a good record or we haven't. I believe that we have"
(December 2014. Text by Henri Strik, edited by Peter Willemsen. Live pictures by Nigel Reid-Foster)
As far as I'm concerned the latest eponymous album of the Scottish prog band Abel Ganz (see review) belongs to the best prog rock releases of 2014. The album's got many surprises in store mainly caused by the different influences from various other musical styles beside progressive rock. Since it took the band six years to record a successor for Shooting Albatross, Background Magazine thought it to be the right time for an interview. Drummer Denis Smith (DS), bassist Stevie Donnelly (SD) and guitarist-singer Stuart 'Mick' Macfarlane (MM) were so kind to answer all my questions about the new excellent album and more!
Why did it take so long to release a follow-up album to Shooting Albatross and why is the new album simply titled Abel Ganz? Does it suggest a new beginning?
Denis Smith: “Well, I really wish we could record albums quicker but the truth is that we have always been very slow at producing records. On this particular record there was an extra special effort to make it absolutely the very best work we could produce in every single aspect. We were really fastidious about every tiny detail, so I'm sure this added some considerable overall time.
Mick Macfarlane: “I joined the band in 2007 and at the time the band were perfecting the Shooting Albatross record. I had to learn it from scratch. Then we had to get the creative juices flowing for the first time for the next record. Once they were flowing and we came up with the songs it took some time to get arrangements, structure and lyrics sorted. Then of course we had to record it as well. I think there have been at least four children born to band members in the time we took to record Abel Ganz. That took up a bit of our time as well.”
Stevie Donnelly: “I suppose in some ways it was a new beginning, but I like to think we were leaving it open and the audience could make up their own minds about where the band was coming from.”
The original members Hew Montgomery and Hugh Carter still perform on this album, but they're no longer in the band. Why not?
DS: “We remain very good friends with both of them and still see them regularly. They decided that the time had come for them to move on and that they could no longer give Abel Ganz the amount of time that being in a band demands. However, it was very easy to have them on the new album as guests and I'm delighted that they are included. Personally, I hope that we will work with either, or both, of them again in the future and I would love them to appear on the next album we make too! Indeed, I was speaking to Hew about this only very recently and he told me he would be happy to help in any way he could - so we shall see what happens.”
MM: “Their priorities changed over the years which led them to new challenges and wanting to fulfil other dreams. Leaving the band has given them the time to do this. There is no animosity between them and the band. In fact the first part of Obsolescence had been written by Hugh before we got down to writing the album properly.”
SD: “We have a great relationship with both founding members so it was easy for them to contribute. They both wanted to pursue other projects without the constraints of the band. Hew has his Grand Tour project and is just about to release an album, which we are all looking forward to and Hugh Carter played recently with us at the album launch for Abel Ganz. The door is always open for these guys and I'm sure we'll work together in the future.”
|From L to R: Denis Smith, Davie Mitchell, Ian Sloane, Mick Macfarlane,|
Stephen Lightbody and Stevie Donnelly [picture by Euan Robertson]
Was it difficult to find good replacements for them?
DS: “Well, in Hugh Carter's case we didn't actively seek out a replacement for his role. It just felt very natural for both Davie and Mick to pick up more guitar parts and some additional keyboards parts. As for finding another keyboardist, we were incredibly lucky to ask Jack Webb to come on board at the time. Jack played an amazing piano solo on Shooting Albatross and on the new album his contributions are enormous; he is a fantastic musician.”
Would you please introduce the current band members?
DS: “Now we have Stephen Lightbody playing keyboards. He joined the band about a year ago just as most of the recordings had been completed, but he contributed on a really wonderful church organ feature for Obsolescence. Stephen is great player as well and we are delighted that he agreed to join the band. The other members of Abel Ganz beside myself on drums and vocals are Mick Macfarlane on lead vocals and guitars, Davie Mitchell on lead guitar, Stevie Donnelly on bass and we have a brand new member Iain Sloan who plays pedal steel guitar amongst other things.”
MM: “Yes, Stephen is a great musician who fitted in right away. We are now a five-piece which means that David and I have to cover quite a lot of guitar parts. As I have said previously, there is no animosity so there's no problem when present and past members meet.”
SD: “Obviously we have Mick as the lead vocalist and second guitar player. He actually sung on Shooting Albatross so he has been in the band for a while; he's a great singer, songwriter and an accomplished guitar player so the transition was quite painless. On keyboards we had Jack Webb who also played on Albatross. He's a fantastic musician and he made a large contribution to the new album. I imagine we'll work together again in the future. Keyboard player Stephen Lightbody is a big prog fan, a brilliant keyboardist and a great guy; a perfect fit for Abel Ganz. He played some awesome stuff on the new album and we were focussed about getting him in the band.”
Does the album have a certain theme or concept? Would you please tell us what all the songs are about ?
DS: “The album isn't a concept album, but there's certainly a connection between the songs at least atmospherically. We were definitely trying to get across certain moods and impressions and I think you can see that throughout the album and even reflected in the artwork. I believe Mick likes to leave his lyrics open to interpretation, but he's the best person to answer that question.”
MM: “Indeed, there's no single concept but I can tell what the songs are about. For example, the two sizeable pieces Unconditional and Obsolescence address issues of emotional well-being and concern making choices in life but in different situations. Thank you is a song I wrote for my parents and quite a different train of thought.”
|Abel Ganz live|
When I listened to the album I felt that I had to play it in one go to get the real mood of the album. Do you agree and was it put together that way?
DS: “I'm most pleased that you feel this way! As I explained earlier we put an enormous amount of effort into every detail on this record and it was absolutely put together that way. We really were trying to take the listeners on a journey through various moods and atmospheres, suggestions of feelings and so on. I feel we sequenced it very well.”
MM: “Yes, I think one of the things about great albums is the track running order. So even when there isn't a concept at all, it's very important for me to get the track order right to maximise the impact of the record and get across what you're trying to convey.”
SD: “The album took a long time to record. There were lots of recording sessions over a very long period of time which was sometimes quite difficult. But I think we were quite clear conceptually what we wanted to achieve. Even though the music is quite eclectic we always envisaged it as one piece, so it's great that you think so either.”
Several musical styles are well-integrated into a strong musical concept. Delusions Of Grandeur for instance, sounds a lot like chamber music. The combination of an oboe, violin, viola and the acoustic piano works very well. How did you find the right musicians to play them?
DS: Delusions Of Grandeur was entirely composed by Jack Webb. When he first let me hear the demo version he had made I was immediately impressed. In fact, I loved it! On the demo, however, many of the sounds were rather poor. The strings and oboe parts − originally a saxophone part − were 'performed' by poor samples and the actual recording was at a very low resolution. I felt strongly that to do the tune justice we had to use real musicians and in the end we re-recorded every single part except Jack's original piano from the demo which we kept. We initially thought to replace the saxophone part with either a cor anglais or perhaps even a bassoon, but in the end we decided that the oboe sounded best given the key that the tune is in. Finding Sarah Cruickshank wasn't that difficult. Glasgow is home to several world class orchestras and in the city we also have The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland of which Sarah is a recent graduate. Working with her was very easy; she came to the band's studio one afternoon, I played her the parts and I think she had everything recorded within an hour or two! Working with Frank van Essen was slightly different as we never actually met; we simply exchanged files over the internet. Frank was recommended to us via the friend of a friend on Facebook, who pointed us towards Frank's website. I must say that he did an absolutely amazing job! Really, we were knocked out with the results he was able to produce by building up the strings parts all by himself, one violin and violas at a time. We were so impressed that we very much hope to work with him again in the future. Perhaps on the next record we may feature a string quartet or something along those lines.”
MM: “I guess it's the sum of the parts in relation to our musical tastes; that and the fact that Scottish folk and traditional music is prominent in Scotland. This music takes many forms and is often found transcending boundaries; a bit like prog rock. So lots of influences found their way onto the record. Personally my biggest weakness is the big hair metal bands of the eighties, which was my thing back then. Mind you, there's not much evidence of that on Abel Ganz. Dennis wouldn't let me.”
SD: “Delusions Of Grandeur was written by Jack and it really knocked us out when we heard it. Denis decided that we needed to get some pretty special musicians to play on it so he found the right people.”
On Recuerdos and The Drowning I heard brass parts that made me think of the latest albums of Big Big Train. Who suggested the idea to use brass and did you know that BBT did the same?
DS: “Well, if we go back to 2004 when we started to record Shooting Albatross I was already pushing hard to use brass instruments. However, at the time not everyone thought it was such a good idea so it didn't happen, but that failure made me all the more determined that if we had another chance I would try to make it happen. As for Big Big Train, yes, I personally was aware of their excellent use of brass and it certainly gave me some encouragement to believe that such ideas may be more widely accepted by a prog audience. I have always loved brass and colliery bands ever since I was young; historically, central Scotland had many coal mines and just about every small town and village had a brass band. I remember that my first real job was working in a drum shop in Scotland that every year supplied all the percussion instruments for the annual, national brass band championships, which I would
MM: “Using brass was indeed Dennis' idea. He was adamant that this was how it was going to sound. I have to admit I wasn't too sure until I heard first-hand what he meant. I had made a demo of The Drowning, but with a completely different musical arrangement. The brass arrangement works very well, I think. I'm not familiar with Big Big Train's work at present, but I shall get onto that.”
SD: “There was always an ambition to use brass on the album, but Denis really pushed for it. It was occasionally quite daunting especially in The Drowning where you have a full brass band. But I'm really glad we persevered. I'm not that familiar with the brass on the BBT albums either, but I'm sure the other guys are. I always get a David Sylvian or a Blue Nile vibe when I hear that flugelhorn.”
What about mixing the sound of grasshoppers and acoustic guitars on Recuerdos?
DS: “Well, I don't want to give away too much specifics about that. On a surface level, that tune is simply a love song. Suffice it to say however, that it's also about a memory more than anything else and that the grasshoppers have a lot to do with that. Certain sounds or smells can sometimes trigger a memory which then takes you right back to a certain time and place.”
On Unconditional I heard a jazzy type of music. Due to the trumpet parts of Mr. McGhee and some fine piano playing it sounds like 'Miles Davis meets Dave Brubeck'. Furthermore I heard a kind of Latin tune thanks to the congas of Ed Higgins. Who came with that idea to use this kind of music on this composition?
DS: “Unconditional is a tune on which everyone collaborated successfully. We all had the chance to contribute a little something to that song, which is really great. I'm very pleased about it, but essentially it came from Stephen. He came up with the main tuneful part on the opening section and also the clever, moving time signature riff after the jazz section. This section actually came about as we searched for a way to join the first part and the third part together. Davie came up with the melody played by the guitar and trumpet. I think this tune works particularly well; Jack Webb plays some lovely piano on this tune and also a killer Hammond solo. The congas at the end I also love; Ed Higgins did a great job there and also on End Of Rain where he plays a lot of percussion.”
SD: “I really wanted to play around with some of the grooves in Unconditional and do something that changed the feel of the song but thematically remained connected. That's where the jazz section came from. I brought along a double bass, Jack played this amazing Lyle Mays type piano and Davie came up with the melody. We later got Tom McNiven to play the tune on the trumpet and he gave it that authentic feel. Ed has been a pal for years and we just felt it would be great to have some congas on Unconditional. The end section is the only part of the song with a straight solid groove and the percussion just made it.”
Why does Unconditional start with a radio message?
In Thank You I noticed some Scottish country or folk tunes that move the music in the direction of bands Wally and Horslips. Do you agree?
DS: “Yes I do. Thank You is a song that Mick had already written and brought to the band in demo form. I think it's worth mentioning that in Scotland we are surrounded by Celtic and folk music generally, and this musical tradition is something that Mick has been very involved in over the years. His partner hails from the western isles of Scotland and they're bringing up their children to be native Gaelic speakers. I believe that, perhaps, some rock musicians in Scotland can be a little dismissive of this music and even ignore it because it's just everywhere. However, I would say that since Shooting Albatross, where we used quite a few folk instruments and musicians, it's a part of our musical heritage that we have become more and more interested in exploring. As a matter of fact, when Mick originally let us hear his demo version of Thank You he had recorded it in such a way as to play down the core folk elements of the tune. We decided that if we were going to record the tune that we should, if anything, go the other way and really maximise these folk elements. For that reason we recorded a verse in the Scottish Gaelic language and Mick had to learn the words from one of his relations in the Hebridean islands! I also want to say that we are aware that there has been some surprise in certain quarters that Abel Ganz should record a song like Thank You, which perhaps is not a song to find on a prog album, whatever that means. We have seen certain reviews of the album that show not everyone is too keen on it, but we have also received many e-mails from people who think it's the best song! So, there are split opinions about it. For us, however, we had never any doubt about including it, and we would do it again for two important reasons. First: it's just a good song and music is music at the end of the day! Second: we were absolutely honoured and privileged to work with some really amazing people when recording this track. Honestly, we feel so lucky that this song allowed us to work with musicians of the very highest calibre, not least of all Jerry Donahue who contributed two really beautiful guitar solos.”
MM: “As I said previously this was a song I wrote about my parents. The songs I have been writing over the years have been on the whole in the vein of acoustic driven folk rock songs, so this song, unlike the majority of the album, was written outside the songwriting unit of Abel Ganz. This may explain why it's a bit different.”
SD: “It definitely got a traditional Scottish feel. Mick is a really accomplished folk musician and he really made it happen. He even sang a verse in Gaelic!”
DS:“Obsolescence is another song that I'm very pleased to say everyone collaborated together on. Although, in this case, the bulk of the acoustic guitar passages you refer to came from Davie Mitchell. I know he will be very pleased that you pick out the references and influences you suggest as he's a big fan of those early Genesis albums and the 12-string acoustic guitar in particular. I know that Davie told me that when he wrote the 12-string acoustic passage that opens Obsolescence he was thinking along the lines of Steve Hackett's Horizons or maybe Narnia. A Portion Of Noodles is actually entirely played by Mick who is an incredibly gifted acoustic guitar player. There are certain acoustic guitar passages on Obsolescence where both Davie and Mick play at the same time, which I think are really beautiful. We have been rehearsing the song recently for live shows and they sound great together.”
MM: “Well, to be honest, I don't agree. The influences in the band are wide and varied and I suppose ideas will appear through our subconscience taking influences from what we love in music. This is a fine compliment and thank you for it.”
The final track The Drowning made me think of the music made by Tim Bowness. Was he a source of inspiration?
DS: “To be absolutely honest with you - no. I've never heard a single track by Tim Bowness. A terrible admission, I know, and since you mention his name to me now I have just bought his latest album to rectify that failing! The Drowning is another of Mick's songs; as I mentioned earlier his original demo of that tune was just him and an acoustic guitar. We used the brass band on that to really accentuate the mournful qualities of the song and again, if any artist was an influence on the finished version of the song, it was probably David Sylvian and the track Let The Happiness In that was responsible for the 'sound' that we were trying to aspire to.”
MM: “I'm afraid Tim is not an artist I could tell you a lot about. I had discovered a new tuning for the guitar when that was written and the basic structure of the song came from trying out new chord patterns. Lyrically it's about someone having made a bad decision. Not for the first time; about someone who doesn't learn his lessons.”
SD: “I think that's a great compliment though I think there were probably others artists that were more of an influence when putting that track together.”
Who was responsible for the great artwork including images of winter and autumn? It perfectly represents the atmosphere of the music on this album?
DS: “You make me again very happy that you should notice this and say so! As I said right at the start of this interview we paid a great deal of attention to every detail of this record including the artwork, and we really were hoping to convey the moods and atmospheres on this release through the images we used. It was actually Stevie Donnelly who put it all together and we were all delighted with it as we think he did a really great job.”
SD: “I designed the artwork so I'm really pleased you like it. We wanted some minimal artwork that gave the listeners the opportunity to interpret the music and make their own connections. I wanted everyone to have their own personal experience when listening to the album. I didn't want the artwork to be obtrusive or too prescriptive and that's why it's very open and expansive.”
On Dawn I heard some hints of the early Dutch band Focus. Have they been an inspiration for this song?
DS: “Ha! Ha! Ha! You really make me laugh, Henri because this was precisely what we had in mind when we recorded the Hammond and lead guitar at the start of Dawn. I very well remember the day we recorded the guitar and Davie said he was channelling all his inner Jan Akkerman! We are all great admirers of Focus - Davie and I have seen them several times - but none more so than Davie himself who is a big, fan.”
What about the music in the vein of Rick Wakeman and The Enid that I heard at the end of The Dream?
DS: “It was my idea to feature a big pipe organ solo at the end of The Dream. The bigger the better, I love pipe organs! My father was a very good church organist and I remember as a child he would occasionally take me to various
MM: “Again I think there are so many influences there that things will sound familiar at times. Certainly Mr Wakeman is someone we are all familiar with musically.”
Were all band members satisfied with the final result of the album or would you say afterwards that some things could have been done better?
DS: “Right now we are all incredibly proud of the finished work; it's hard for me at this moment to see how we could have done a better job than we did. That view may change over time of course - it usually does anyway, ha! ha! Really, we poured our hearts and souls in the making of this album. We knew it was a very important album for us and that it had to be the very best that we were capable of producing! It's very gratifying indeed for us that the reactions to the album have been so incredibly positive, way better than we ever imagined or hoped.”
MM: “Yes, most definitely. We are all very proud of the album. We have been fortunate to have had a number of very favourable reviews of Abel Ganz. This is if course fantastic, but when we put it out there and we knew we had done our best, we hadn't a clue as to how it would go down. I know how fickle prog fans can be; rightly so. This is why it means such a lot to us to have the album received as well as it has.”
SD: “It has to be said it wasn't an easy album to make and I think we would do things differently. In saying that we are all incredibly proud of the way it turned out and it far exceeded our expectations. It sets the bar pretty high for our next album though!”
Do you intend to go on tour with this album in Europe?
DS: “We are looking into that right now as it happens! Abel Ganz is a band that has never played live often enough in my view and this is something we are determined to change. The band is sounding really good and everyone is itching to play, so we are doing everything we possibly can to try and arrange as many gigs as we can in Europe in 2015. We have actually just been confirmed for the Progdreams IV Festival in April in the Netherlands and we are looking forward to that immensely.”
Did you ever consider asking Alan Reed again for this album to do some vocal parts like he did in the eighties?
DS: “On this occasion, no. Alan is of course a great friend of the band and he even sang on the epic So Far from our previous album Shooting Albatross. However, as the band now moves forward into a new phase we all felt it very important that Mick should be given the space and opportunity to mark out his role as lead vocalist. We are all very happy with his contributions on this new record; we consider ourselves fortunate that he agreed to join the band. He's a great singer and guitar player, and also a strong composer. All of these facts bode well and give us a great deal of confidence for the future! Indeed, I personally feel that the band is in a better place now than it has ever been since 2001 when Abel Ganz reformed.”
MM: “No, we didn't. Alan is busy doing his wonderful music and Abel Ganz very much differs from the band he left back in the eighties.”
SD: “Alan is a great friend of the band, but we felt that Mick was really doing an amazing job so it just didn't come up as an option.”
Is there anybody who asked why the band is still called Abel Ganz? As far as I know none of the original members participate in the current line-up. Don't get me wrong, I still love the name of the band!
DS: “Actually, I've been a little surprised that the answer to your question is almost universally: no! I thought it might have come up a lot before now, but you are maybe the second person that has mentioned it ever. Yes, it's true that with the departure of Hew and Hugh no original members are left, from the eighties, anyway. Of course, like we talked about earlier, both Hew and Hugh appear on the new album and they have both been incredibly helpful and encouraging since they both separately decided to leave the band. However, the way I see it is that the band had ceased to exist until 2001 when it was reformed by Hew, Hugh, Davie and me as four equal partners. Stevie Donnelly came on board not very long after that. Since then, Abel Ganz has always felt to me as being as much 'my band' as anybody else's. When Hew Montgomery decided to call it a day eight years later in 2009, it still felt like Abel Ganz to me. When Hugh Carter also left a year after that, it still felt like Abel Ganz and I still feel exactly the same way today. I'm still in the same band now as I was in 2001. As it happens, when Hew Montgomery left he sent all band members a really lovely e-mail explaining his reasons for going. He told us all not to worry and that the band was far more important than any one member. We would carry on just fine without him, he said. When Hugh also stepped away I guess I thought about it, but actually Hew was absolutely right. At the end it's only the music that matters. Either we've made a good record or we haven't. I believe that we have.”
MM: “This question I've heard asking quite a lot lately as the old bands get even older. David, Dennis and Stevie Donnelly have been members of Abel Ganz for a number of years so there was no desire to change the name. I joined when Hew and Hugh were both in the band and I have never felt the need to change the name. If we had started playing music belonging to a different genre perhaps that would have been good reason to change the name.”
SD: “We thought about changing the name of the band but decided against it. Dennis has been playing in the band on and off since Dangers Of Strangers and has been instrumental in the resurgence of the band. Davie has been playing since well before Albatross was released and even relative newcomers such as Mick and myself have been playing with the band for nearly a decade. We just felt that we were 'Ganzers' and the music we were making was Abel Ganz music and luckily most of the fans of the band old and new agreed.”
Thank you for answering all my questions!
DS: “Thank yóu! It was our pleasure.”
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