The Story Behind... Mack Maloney's Sky Club

“I don’t consider myself a musician, though I’m very envious of anyone who is a true musician”

(September 2010, text by Henri Strik, edited by Peter Willemsen, pictures provided by Mack Maloney)

Sometimes I get ‘strange’ requests. It happened to me when I got in contact with science fiction writer Mack Maloney. He asked me if his musical project Sky Club would be an idea for our rubric The Story Behind... Well, we liked the music on Sky Club (see review) so I didn’t see any obstacles to ask him more about Mack Maloney’s Sky Club.

If I’m not mistaken, you’re a famous American writer who sold already 4.5 million copies. Can you tell our readers a bit more about yourself and being a writer?

Mack Maloney: “I’ve been writing science fiction and military novels for quite a while. In fact, I had a book come out the same day as the Sky Club-album. I’ve been extremely lucky to be able to be a full-time writer, because it’s not an easy business to break into. I’ve always enjoyed writing, mostly because growing up and in school it was the only thing I was any good at. Mathematics, chemistry, languages and things like that always went right over my head, but I was always able to get by with writing. I went to college for journalism and then to graduate school for film making. My first job out of graduate school, though, was as a sports reporter and it just sort of went from there.” 

Being a writer, why did you have the urge to become a musician releasing an album that became the soundtrack for a book?

“I usually listen to music when I’m writing. Lots of prog rock, but sometimes jazz, classical and lately a lot of techno, house and trance music. One night I was writing and listening to music and the idea came to me that it might be interesting if the book I was doing had a soundtrack, something where the music was connected to what was happening in the story. I thought about it and I realized that doing a soundtrack for a novel would be a huge undertaking. A soundtrack for a short story might be more manageable. Right around this same time I’d read an extensive article about Otzi, the prehistoric man whose body was found frozen inside a glacier in the Alps. He was fairly well preserved, as were his clothes and the items he had with him the day he died. That got me thinking: what if a spaceman was lost on a deserted planet and was found thousands of years later with his personal belongings still intact. What would these items be? And what kind of a story would come from that? That’s how the idea for the CD began.”          

The way you play the keyboards is outstanding. Are you an educated musician who can read notes?

“Actually, I don’t consider myself to be a musician at all. I’ve played the synths for years, but I don’t have the music genes like other guys in the band. When we were mixing the CD, I told our producer Chris Billias, that when it came to the keyboards, I wanted them to ‘be there, but not be there.’ I didn’t want them to intrude or detract from what I consider the top-notch playing the rest of the guys do on the album. That was the plan from the beginning and I think it worked.”  

Why did you choose to cover songs from well-known artists?

“Once we had the idea about a guy lost and alone on a deserted planet, we went about looking for songs we could use to tell his story. In fact, the other day someone called the CD the first ever ‘covers concept album’ and he might be right. A lot of the songs we’ve just liked over the years, even though they might not be well-known. Many people probably don’t recall that The Who recorded a song called Don’t Let Go The Coat. However, for our purposes it was the perfect song to start the album with. I’ve always been a big fan of Cream, and again, Deserted Cities Of The Heart fit really well into the concept, as did the Journey-song Send Her My Love. Same with the two Jars Of Clay songs Flood and Worlds Apart. In fact we’ve gotten some good reviews from religious music magazines, which is interesting. Although I think the CD is spiritual, it’s by no means a ‘religious’ record.”

What was the main reason you picked these particular songs?

“I guess you could say each song has a loose connection to the story. Again, the idea is a guy alone on a planet, missing his home and his wife and he knows he’s never going to be rescued. And these are the songs he listens to during this difficult time. So, when you hear the refrain ‘can you hear me?’ in Silent Running from Mike & The Mechanics, and again at the end of Cross My Heart, you know that’s what’s going through the spaceman’s mind. When you hear ‘it’s been so long, since I’ve seen her face’ in the Journey-song, you know the spaceman is thinking about his wife. When you hear the surf music in Star Surfing 1962, you know he’s thinking about when he used to surf before he became an astronaut. We wanted the songs to be both connected and interconnected and I think we did that. But what it all really comes down to is the old ‘desert island’ question. If you were alone on a desert island or a deserted planet, what music would you want with you? For the spaceman in the story, it’s these twelve songs.”

Why did you only use some songs of your own and not an entire album?

“Two reasons. Again, we liked the idea of doing what might be the first ever ‘covers concept’ album. Though no-one had given it that name yet, it’s always good to try to do something new. Second, I’m not sure we could have written twelve songs that would tell the story. The idea is that the spaceman is lost on the deserted planet and has only his iPod and the songs on it to keep him company. So these songs have to be his favourite ones which meant it had to be songs other people have recorded before.”  

Why did you use the name Sky Club for this album?

“Right up until the time the CD was going to be pressed, the name of the album was actually Ipodius and the name of the band was Sky Club. Not to give too much away, but Ipodius is the name given to the spaceman whose story we follow over the course of the CD. However, at the last minute we weren’t sure just how Apple Inc. would feel about us using a variation of the word iPod as part of a commercial enterprise. We certainly didn’t want to get sued or do anything to hold up the release of the CD. So we changed the name of the CD to Sky Club and put Mack Maloney as the artist. The record company liked the idea because they saw it as a way for people who read my books to see that I was also involved in a music project. But I’m still not comfortable with my name on top of the bill. Like I said before, the other four guys are such great musicians and I just play the synths which anyone can do these days. But that’s just how it turned out.”    

Would you please tell us a bit more of what the story’s all about?

“The story follows a space traveller who crashes on a deserted planet and lives out the rest of his life knowing he will never get home. He has his iPod with him and during those lonely years, he listens to his twelve favourite songs over and over, because they remind him of his plight, but also of his life before he found himself in this predicament. He eventually dies and withers away, but thousands of years later, his remains are discovered by an alien race and the songs on his iPod are reconstructed. In this way he introduces music to the alien society who had no idea what music was before. The reconstructed songs are the songs you hear on the CD.”

Would you introduce the musicians you worked with to realize this concept? Will they work with you on another musical project in the future?

“I’ve been friends with Mark Poulin for a long time and he simply is one of the best musicians I know. I couldn’t have done the CD without him because not only does he perform all the vocals, the bass, the drums parts and about 80 percent of the guitar work, he also helped select and arrange the songs and he co-produced the project. So he’s the major musical force behind the CD. When I first got the idea to do a soundtrack for a short story, he was the first person I talked to. The next person I talked to was Rich Kennedy, another fantastic guitar player, who just happens to be my wife’s brother. We’re both big fans of old sci-fi movies and I knew he’d get into the idea right away. He’s a devotee of the Jimi Hendrix/ Eric Clapton style of guitar and we felt his playing would complement Mark’s perfectly, so we got him involved immediately. We met Amadee Castenell, our sax player, through the studio where we did the demos for the CD. We’d put a synth sax on one of the early songs just to see what it would sound like. When the engineer first heard it, he asked if we wanted to put a real saxophone on it. We’d never considered putting horns on the CD, but we figured we’d give it a try. So, he introduced us to Amadee and it turns out that he has played with Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, The Eagles, Bonnie Raitt, Fats Domino, Elvis Costello, The Neville Brothers, on and on – at least a couple dozen big artists. He heard the song and put down a perfect sax part in like five minutes. We had left a lot of open bars on some of the demos, places where we planned to put guitar solos in later. But now we had this fantastic sax player, so we wound up having him play on almost half the tracks. Truthfully, once Amadee got involved, the CD went up to another level. He’s an amazing musician. We’re still in awe of him. The fifth guy is Chris Billias ; he plays the piano on the CD and he’s also our producer. We mixed and mastered the CD at Bristol Recording Studios in Boston. It’s a pretty famous place. When we first went there, Chris was the guy they assigned us and he understood right away the sound we were going for. He’s also a great piano player. So, as the project went along, we were able to utilize his piano talents too. Again, we were very lucky to hook up with him.” 

Mark Poulin (vocals, guitar, bass and percussion) Rich Kennedy (guitar)

Can you describe how the recording process took place?

“We started out by recording the basic tracks at Mark Poulin’s home studio. Then, we took those tracks to a demo studio in the town where we live just north of Boston. We built up the songs there, adding vocals and other instruments like the sax and the keyboards. Then we went to Bristol Studios to mix and master it. All this took almost three years.”  

Did you only record the songs that appeared on the album or did you also had some left overs?

“Yes, we had. Not everything we recorded made it onto the CD. The first song we tried was Strawberry Letter #23 by the Brothers Johnson. This was before we had the idea for the CD firmly in place. It’s a great song by a great band. I always liked it because to me it almost sounds like Yes doing a funky song. Anyway, we tried it and it turned out to be a mess. It was just awful. We tried speeding it up, slowing it down and having two people sing it, but whatever we did it just came out really bad. However, you learn from your mistakes and we learned a lot from that one experience. Later on in the process, we recorded a song called Dream Of The Future which was from the soundtrack for the film Raising Arizona. Again a great song, that plays at the end of the movie, while the main character thinks about everything that’s happened to him. It sounded like a perfect fit for the CD. There are no lyrics, so we recorded Mark humming the melody on 25 separate tracks, so it would sound like a choir. Then we added the instruments and more humming and while it came out interesting, especially after we put the sax on it, it sounded more like a New Orleans funeral dirge than something that would go on a CD about a guy lost on a deserted planet. So we chose not to include it.”         

The album has some great designs on the cover and in the booklet to tell the story. Can you tell me who created them and how you met this artist?

“The main artist is Mike Dominic. He did about 80 percent of the drawings; he drew the CD’s cover and did the overall design of the booklet. Mike is from Nova Scotia, Canada, and we found him after looking at his drawing samples on Craig’s List. We were looking for someone who could draw the images we had in mind in the style of the covers of science fiction magazines of the thirties and forties. Mike got the idea right away and we worked together going over examples of those great old covers and coming up with images that fit our story.  He was a really big help on the visual side of the project.”     

Did you have any troubles finding a record label that was willing to release the music? Was Voiceprint the only interested record company?

“Actually we had signed with one record company while we were still mixing the CD. But things just didn’t go the way we thought they would. Meanwhile, I’d known Rob Ayling of Voiceprint for several years. When I found out he was going to be in New York City, we set up a meeting and I played him the demos. He liked the songs right away and he liked the overall concept. In all, the meeting lasted about ten minutes and we had a deal. He’s been great to us ever since.”    

You’re a good friend of Patrick Moraz, the former keyboardist of Yes and The Moody Blues. How did this happen and why didn’t he contribute to the album as a guest musician playing for instance a fat MiniMoog solo?

“Yes, I’m honoured to say I’m good friends with Patrick. I’ve known him for about twenty years. I met him during his very famous CHAT-tour, which was the first ever rock tour booked entirely on the internet. Patrick is a great guy and he and his wife Phyllis are two of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. I’ve been his publicist for all that time and I can tell you they’ve both done many things for Yes-fans, behind the scenes, things that very few people know about. They’ve helped people who were having troubles or medical issues or whatever and any time people asked them for help, they’ve always come through, which isn’t always the case with other people in that particular end of the music business. Anyway, while we were making the album, believe me, I thought many times how it would be if we had Patrick play on it. First of all, he was busy doing his own projects, but I also had to look at it from my main job’s point of view which is writing books. You want it to be your own and if it isn’t then you have a hard time feeling any part of it. If I was writing a book and someone said, Stephen King or Ken Foullet can help you write this book. Sure, it would help sales, but it would not be the same idea that I started out with. Maybe it would be better, but it certainly would be different too. There were many times when we came to a point in recording when we said: what would Patrick do here? Meaning, what’s the most tasteful thing we can do here, the most interesting thing. So it was like he was always with us in the studio and that’s why we credit him and Phyllis on the CD as our spiritual advisors.”      

What’s the story behind The Lesbians?

“I assume you mean the story that’s told on our website? If so, I’ll try to explain. Mark Poulin and I were always looking for music projects to do together. I went to a wedding a while back where I was told the bride had left her fiancé for a brief period of time to live with another woman. I began wondering if losing one’s girlfriend to a woman was as painful as losing her to another man – it was a real American thing to think about. I came home and wrote the lyrics to a song titled I’d Rather Lose You To A Woman Than Lose You To Another Man. Although I was never a big fan of country & western music, this song came out as a country song, because there’s a tradition in America of telling sort of odd or unusual stories via that kind of music. Just for a goof, Mark and I and a few other musicians formed a band called The Tennessee Saints, even though we live in the Boston area and not anywhere near Tennessee. We recorded the song under that name and much to our surprise it won the Country Music Association’s Record Of The Year award. The song got some press and it was played a lot down in the southern part of the United States, where country music is popular. Because of the subject, back then it had to be played late at night, which made it sort of notorious. That was it as far as a career in country music is concerned and that’s pretty much all we did with The Tennessee Saints. We figured it was best to quit while we were ahead.”
Chris Billias (piano) Anadee Castenell (sax)

Are there any other anecdotes about making the album that you would like to share?

“We did the original demos for the CD in a studio just north of Boston. It was a very comfortable place, two rooms in an old restored house. It was almost like recording in someone’s living room. Anyone who’s familiar with recording studios knows there are usually rules, including no smoking, eating or drinking around the equipment. In this particular studio, though, the recording room was separated from the engineer’s room by two doors and a short hallway. The engineer could not see into the recording room; communication was done by microphones and headsets. When we are doing the demo sessions, we always record the instruments during the day and do the vocals at night. We are always very serious while recording the instruments, but doing the vocals was another story. Singing the same lines over and over, trying to get just the right sound, could get tedious and sometimes it took a little inspiration to get it right, and by inspiration I mean whiskey.  

I bought a pair of jeans that had about a half dozen cargo-pants type pockets. Before every vocal session, I would go to the liquor store and buy a bunch of nips, which are very small bottles of liquor usually sold for a dollar or so. I would stuff the nips into all these pockets then go to the studio and sneak them by the engineer. Once the doors between the two halves of the studio were closed, we wouldn’t see the engineer sometimes for an hour or two. As soon as the session started, I would pull out these whiskey nips and Mark and I would start drinking. By the second hour or so, we’d be feeling no pain. By the end of four hours, we were pretty drunk. When The Beatles were recording at Abbey Road, they knew their producer, George Martin, disapproved of them smoking pot, so they used to go up on the studio roof out of his sight and get a buzz on. This was a similar thing because we knew the engineer would have been upset if he knew we were breaking the rules and drinking around the equipment. The funny thing was, at the end of the session, we’d stagger out, and my pockets were now filled with all these little empty bottles. But the engineer never seemed to notice. I’m not suggesting this is the best way to make an album, or at least put vocals on an album, but when we got to Bristol Recording Studios, the place where we mixed the songs, 99 percent of the vocals we’d recorded in this manner were used on the final mixes.” 

How did the readers of your books react when they heard you had also recorded an album?

“I think the first half were surprised and the other half were sceptical. Books, writing, publishing – they’re all part of show business, just as much as music and movies. In fact I see publishing books falling somewhere between recording music and making films. They’re all ways of communicating a story, a message or feelings to the public. So I really don’t think it’s that great of a leap for an author to make a CD, anymore than it would be for a musician to write a book. So far, many people who like my books have told me they like the album, which is good to hear.”    

Why should people buy the Sky Club-album?

“The very basic, bottom line reason is for someone who wants to hear an album full of powerful songs. I realize that when people hear that an author has recorded a CD about a traveller lost in space that they might assume the music would be like early Moody Blues, fairyland rock – but it isn’t. Many of the songs are filled with power and emotion and they really rock out, while still having elements of progressive rock. We didn’t start out trying to sound like anyone, but since the CD has come out we have been compared to Pink Floyd, Yes, Supertramp, Horselips, Brian Eno and the Alan Parsons Project – those are all compliments to us, to be mentioned in the same breath as great musicians like that is unexpected. But all those bands are capable of producing some pretty dynamic music, especially Yes and Pink Floyd, and that’s what we set out to do.”         

How do we call you nowadays, a musician or a writer? Which one do you prefer?

“Again, I don’t consider myself a musician, though I’m very envious of anyone who is a true musician. One night my wife and I were talking about celebrities and famous people and who we liked and didn’t like, and she said: “Do you realize that all your heroes are musicians, not writers?”, and she was right. My heroes are The Beatles and the guys in Cream, The Who, Marillion, and people like Steve Howe and Matt Malley of Counting Crows, Julian Colbeck and Terry Thomas and Patrick Moraz, of course. But I can’t really say I consider any author a hero of mine. It was a strange thing to realize, but it’s true. Jon Anderson once said when he started out, all he wanted was to be able to put ‘musician’ on the line on his passport where it asks for your profession. He certainly can do that now because he’s one of the greatest singers in rock history, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do that. For me I think it will always be ‘writer’. By the way, my wife comes from a very musical family. Her brother, Rich Kennedy, plays in Sky Club of course, plus one of her cousins played guitar for The Young Rascals and another played drums in A Flock of Seagulls.”

What are your plans for the near future? Writing more books and releasing more CD’s?

“I hope I’ll always be able to write books. As for the music, we’ve been talking lately about a second CD. We have a few things we have to do first, though. We’ve been invited to contribute a track to an upcoming tribute CD to The Flower Kings. We’re doing Church Of Your Heart. Once that project is done, and I’ve finished my next book, I think we’ll start talking seriously about a second CD. As Rob Ayling said in a recent interview, maybe the spaceman had two CD’s with him, who knows?”

Great choice to cover that Flower Kings-track! Mack thanks for answering my questions and good luck with your career as a writer and as a musician.


More info about Mack Maloney on the Internet:
Mack Maloney Website
Album review "Sky Club"

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