Interview Johannes Luley (ex-Moth Vellum)

“The flow of an album is just as important as the compositions and it can only be as good as it weakest song”

(May 2013, text by Henri Strik, edited by Peter Willemsen, pictures provided by Johannes Luley)

In 2008 I was very impressed by the eponymous debut album recorded by the American progressive rock band Moth Vellum. In 2013 I was again impressed, but this time by an album called Tales From Sheepfather's Grove (see review), recorded by Moth Vellum's former guitarist Johannes Luley. I was curious to find out what happened to Moth Vellum, why he recorded this solo album and some more interesting questions. For that reason Background arranged an interview with this multi-instrumentalist.

Firstly I would like to congratulate you with your first stunning solo album. Before talking about this album would you please introduce yourself and tell our readers a bit about your background?

Johannes Luley: “Thank you for being interested in my music. I guess with a magazine named Background it makes sense to start with that. Well, I've been playing the guitar, my main instrument, since I was seven
Johannes Luley
years old. In my early teenage years I was exposed to all the great seventies super groups, which had a lasting impact on my musical development. In the eighties, I worked as a session player in Germany. This was prior to my move to California in 1993. After arriving in the USA I developed a love for engineering and producing. Holding the strings - no pun intended! - seems to suit my personality and so it was a good fit for me in terms of a professional career. For those who are interested, you can see my discography and learn about my work as a producer and engineer at which is also my studio website. In 2002, after almost a decade in the studio I got a serious itch. I remembered my prog roots and started looking for players to put together a band. This is how Moth Vellum came about.”

In 2008 you released an eponymous album with Moth Vellum. After that the band broke up. What happened?

“The band actually didn't break up immediately after the release of the album. We worked on a follow-up and had tracked material for about half a record. The band finally fell apart in 2010 when our keyboard player moved to Portland, Oregon, and our drummer encountered pretty serious health issues. After unsuccessfully trying to convince the bassist and lead singer to continue, I had to throw in the towel. It was a pretty devastating moment because I loved the band and what it stood for. We had garnered critical acclaim and there were a lot of fans who were all patiently awaiting a new release. It must have been frustrating for them, as it was for me.”

Moth Vellum's debut sounded excellent and I certainly wanted to hear more from it. When did you decide to work on a solo album?

“Right then and there; I had to accept that there wasn't going to be another Moth Vellum album, but that wasn't going to stop me from making records. Actually, this album had just scratched the surface of my desire to explore the progressive rock genre much deeper.”

You called your first solo album Tales From Sheepfather's Grove. Does this title mean anything? Would you please explain the song titles as well?

“The album title refers to a magical place from my childhood. It pays homage to my upbringing and past and represents a window into my own history. A few song titles: Guardians Of Time are the children from whom we can learn at least as much as they can learn from us; Stab The Sea marks the beginning of a journey, and also the beginning of the album; The Fleeting World can be taken quite literally. Our lives just fly by. In the grand scheme of things they are over in the blink of an eye; We Are One is an optimistic poem about humanity. It's about finding the strength to evolve within ourselves.”

On this album you almost played all instruments yourself. Why did you choose to do so?

“It's very simple, because Tales From Sheepfather's Grove was supposed to be a solo album. I had just come out of a very disappointing band situation and frankly had no interest in a new group effort.”

Only few guests are featured. How did you find Robin Hathaway (vocals), Kristina Sattler (vocals), Sianna Lyons (vocals) and Stephanie Bennett (harp)?

“Robin is my lovely wife, and also someone who just loves to sing. Whenever I have a part that suits her voice, I'll ask her to do it. She also did the spoken word part in Atheos Spiritualis. I found Sianna online in search of a female singer who specializes in chant. She is a throat singer and has a very impressive range. Kristina is a friend whose youthful voice was a perfect match for a song about children. Stephanie was referred to me by a harpist that had performed at my wedding. She has also recorded with artists such as Beck and Paul McCartney, to name a few.”

The overall sound of the album is rather laid-back and very mellow. Why did you choose to make it sound this way?

“It really just came out that way. Perhaps, the fact that I used hand percussion rather than a full drum kit has something to do with it. The overall sound of the record is very much what I had in mind at the beginning of the project.”

Despite the lack of a drummer who could give the album a strong groove or beat I never got the feeling of falling asleep. How did you succeed in keeping the attention throughout the album?

“Ha, ha, thank you, Henri! I'm really glad you didn't fall asleep! But seriously: if this record captured your attention throughout, then it's a total success to me. I actually took great pains to get the order of songs just right. The flow of an album is just as important as the compositions, and it can only be as good as its weakest song. They all need to be equally strong.”

In my opinion the album has a strong Yes feel. Do you agree with me and do you mind people telling you so?

“No, I don't mind at all. We all are mirrors of our experiences and influences. Throughout my musical career I have always sought out music that seemed to break the mold of familiar rhythms and chord progressions. When I first heard Steely Dan for example, and even early Elton John, I really had to know what the hell these guys were doing. I would sit next to my turntable for hours and figure out their chordal structures. Yes was definitely an important stepping stone in my musical development.”

The opening piece Stab The Sea sounds like a track from Olias Of Sunhillow by Jon Anderson in 1976. What do you think of this comparison?

“Well, thank you, I'm very flattered. Olias Of Sunhillow is a prog classic that sounds as magical to me today as it did in 1976. Hopefully, my record will also stand the test of time and still sound good forty years later.”

On songs like Guardians Of Time and The Fleeting World I hear influences of Steve Howe. Am I right?

“To me The Fleeting World has more of a Pat Metheny flavour. Guardians Of Time has a medieval sound. I really like the innocence it portraits.”

Moments made me think of the Turn Of The Century from Going For The One (1977) by Yes. Are you aware of the resemblance?

“I think the resemblance is mostly due to the instrumentation. I've always loved the Polymoog string sound, which was used generously on Going For The One.”

Give And Take and We Are One sound like songs written by Jon & Vangelis. Did this happen by accident?

“I'm not too familiar with the albums they made together. There's one song that I'm very fond of called I Hear You Now. Vangelis of course made great use of all the early synthesizers that I love so much. He managed to sound cool while flirting with being cheesy. It's a thin line.”  

Suite: Atheos Spiritualis sounds like you recorded a Vangelis composition. Do you agree with me?

Atheos Spiritualis is a very complex composition that reflects many of the musical styles I'm partial to: classical, film score, folk and ambient. Honestly, I don't hear any Vangelis in this song, but I will take it as yet another compliment. With Tales From Sheepfather's Grove I have tried to explore my musical roots. It's music straight from my heart. I'm hoping it will touch other hearts as well.”

Well, it certainly does! The album has been released independently. Does that mean that record companies or record labels weren't interested in the album?

“The album was released on my own label My Sonic Temple. I never attempted to get picked up by another label.”

The album has a stunning cover design. It reminded me of the famous artwork by Roger Dean. Who designed it?

“The artist's name is Harout Demirchyan. Check him out at We worked together on the concept for the cover. I gave him a few ideas and told him how I would like the artwork to reflect the title. The result is a magnificent piece of art that perfectly underscores the sound of the album.”

The album was dedicated to the memory of Hanspeter and Charlotte Luley. Are they your parents?

“Yes. My parents had always been very supportive of my musical endeavours. They deserved a big 'thank you'.

Do you have any plans to take your album on the road?

“Not currently. However, I'm working with a new prog band here in Los Angeles. We are called Perfect Beings, have just begun to record our first album, due out around Christmas 2013, and we're planning to start performing live in the summer or the fall. For starters we will only play in and around Los Angeles.”

Can we expect more solo albums in the near future or are you again going to play in a progressive rock band?

“Yes to both. I guess I just answered the band part of that question. I have also begun working on a second solo record, which will indeed be very different from Tales From Sheepfather's Grove. Not exactly a follow-up, but rather a record driven by electric guitar, that will also feature live drums.”

Are there any other future plans you want to share with our readers?

“I'm super excited about mainly Perfect Beings. Our drummer used to play for Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden and also in the British rock band Skin. Our bassist Chris Tristram played for Marjorie Fair and Canadian band Artok. If your readers are interested in finding out about Perfect Beings or any of my other projects, they can do so by going to and also by following me at Fans can also get in touch with me directly through both pages.

Thank you for answering my questions!

“You're very welcome. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share some insight into the process of making music with your readers. Stay in touch everybody and prog on!”

More info about Luley on the Internet:
       review album 'Tales From Sheepfather's Grove'

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