Interview Andrew Roussak

"To Impress Anybody With My Playing Was Never My Primary Aim"

(April 2010. Text Henri Strik, edited by Robert James Pashman., pictures provided by Andrew Roussak)

Lately, I‘ve discovered a fantastic keyboard player from Russia while browsing the internet. You can hear his excellent playing on his first solo album No Trespassing. It reminded me of people like Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman. However, on Dorian Opera’s debut album No Secrets, he shows that he can meld his classical influences with prog metal without any problems at all.

You were born in Russia and moved to Germany in 2001. Does this mean that you also have witnessed the change in Russia yourself? How do you look back at that period in your life and will you someday write some music about your heritage?

In my school days, the country I lived in was still called Soviet Union, then, it became the Russian Federation as I was a student. What followed were the 90’s - a very turbulent period. I am not sure about music, but it is worth a book, of course. Briefly summarized, the end of the 80’s - beginning of the 90’s were the years of the great hopes in Russia, generally a very creative as well as financially difficult time, for me and for many other people. But it was never boring anymore.

Is Andrew Roussak your real name or just an artist name? Because Andrew does not sound very Russian to me.

In Russian it would be “Andrei”, the rest is real. I have changed only one letter, because such a name as Andrew  raises less questions, especially when one is so active online as myself...

What kind of music did you listen when you lived in Russia and was it easy to get the Western orientated music?

One can actually write a book about it. In my school years, my faves were at first The Beatles, later Deep Purple and more later ELP, Yes, Focus and Ekseption. The original vinyl was exactly – an absolute exception and rarity, normally pretty well used already and rather expensive too.  So each music fan got his own collection of tapes, very often the second or third copies dated back from the original, with a black-white photo of the band attached to the box. But music was still accessible, and the music fans were generally helpful to each other. Which practically meant that if you wanted to get a record of, say , Relayer of Yes, you had to find a guy who had a copy, to contact him and to offer him some exchange – and that’s how it worked. 

At the age of seven you started to play piano. Was it difficult to learn all the classical stuff as a child?

I was grown in an atmosphere of classical music. My uncle was a gifted pianist, and the sonatas of Beethoven played by him were very possibly the first musical impression in my life. On Sundays, as the family gathered together in a flat of my grandparents, their best friends (a concert pianist and an opera baritone singer) came also to visit quite often. And then the evening would spontaneously turn into a house concert with the works of Mozart, Beethoven, Russian 19th Century classics performed. So actually it was never a question that I would learn to play piano one day as well, and - no, it was not difficult.

You graduated at the Ufa State College of Arts as a pianist. You never had any plans to become a classical pianist?

The Russian (at that time Soviet) musical educational system generally requires a pretty strict discipline, and its goal from the very beginning is to make a professional of you, whereas the most advanced students are potentially seen as the future concert pianists. I surely have invested lots of time in my technique, but I also had a great interest in composing from the very beginning, later to improvisation technique,  jazz was absolutely accessible in the 80’s, and a little bit more later to all those new electronic sounds. When I was 15, I had stumbled on ELP's album  Pictures at an Exhibition, and I think it was the turning point. 

You also became a studio musician and a chief musical editor at the local broadcast station. Did you record for famous Russian artists in those days and can you mention some names if possible?

My hometown is called Ufa - it is a big industrial city in the Urals region, some 1500 km from Moscow to the east. This fact was crucial, because if one wanted to make it really big in Russia at that time, then he had to move to Moscow or to St. Petersburg. I had many friends who went this way, and some had really managed it, and to work with the stars later. The constant clients of our studio in Ufa were mostly local bands and artists - almost all genres, pros as well as amateurs. I also had to record jingles and ads for the radio, to make compilations for thematic radio shows, etc. All in all, it was a creative time.

You recorded a solo album 'No Trespassing' in Germany later on. But I believe that the origin of this release was when you still lived in Russia. Right?

Yes, some pieces like Vivace Furioso were already there for years, but generally I could not seriously think of recording and releasing a complete prog studio album in Russia in the late 90’s, because prog rock was not somewhat popular there. Recording as such was still supposable, but then you had to come out with your album somehow.  Almost nobody had used Internet privately that time, so one could just not even think of something like a worldwide online promotion, digital distribution etc.

What made you decide to move to Germany at the time?

Well, there were some family and private reasons for it...Looking back and summarising everything that has happened in the last few years to me here, I think it was a correct decision-though you always leave something behind, of course.

Did you find work right from the start when you lived in Germany?

My daily, reliable and easy bread are piano and keyboard lessons, and I had first to learn German from literally zero just to be able to begin with them. Also a certain time was required to gain a free-lancer status in Germany. But, I had almost at once found a cover band with a gig schedule, and I also could play piano on the candle-light dinners in two restaurants on a more or less regular basis, and even to give some private piano concerts. So, the beginning was of course not very easy, but for sure not as difficult as for many others in the same situation.

After a while you met a guitarist Oliver Weislogel, and together you grounded the prog metal band Dorian Opera. Can you tell me how this happened?

Yes, in 2005 Oliver had invited me to join a cover band he was leading-it was called Black Forest Project. Joe Eisenburger was another professional musician whom he invited. After some while it became clear, that the music we wanted to play just did not fit in the frames of a cover band, and Oliver had already many musical ideas which had later found their way onto our first release. But then we needed an appropriate drummer. So, I had contacted a virtuoso drum player Harry Reischmann whom I knew from a blues band we had both played with in 2003. Harry just said “yes, of course!” And so Dorian Opera was finally born, that time as a quartet.

The already mentioned solo album 'No Trespassing' was recorded before the first Dorian Opera album was released. Is that correct and why did you decide to record a solo effort?

Yes, it's true. But actually your question should have sounded like - why so damn late, Andrew? (smiles) As mentioned earlier, some pieces on the album were composed already in Russia. But for a long time I still had thought of the whole adventure in the good old major-label-deal terms, because I had no idea about MySpace, CDbaby and generally of all possibilities the internet might give. Once I have discovered the opportunity to release and to promote my music myself, the idea of a complete solo album became to look attractive to me, and then it was pretty quickly done. 

Unfortunately I have to tell you that the production of 'No Trespassing' could have been done a lot better. But it’s all a matter of money and how large the recording budget was. Am I correct?

Sure. I had no financial backing from any label at this stage, as well as no idea whether anybody, reviewers, fans, web radios etc, would have an interest in my music after all was done. On the other side, I was not satisfied with something like programmed drums or synth-guitars, so I was very grateful to all my guest musicians who had helped me along the way. I had also happened to win four studio days as a result of the German Pop and Rock Award as the best keyboard player of 2006, and I used this time for the drum recording sessions and for the mastering.

I believe that on this album all orchestral sounds were made with your synthesizers. They sound very realistic, like a real orchestra. Can you tell me what kind of keyboards you have used on the album?

Actually the workflow is: I would first prepare a MIDI track for each voice of the score, and I would take care of the certain classical principles, no parallel fifths, no same-directional movement of the voices, already at this stage. That's what makes the strings sound so authentic. Then, I would use several different samplers to record the sound, layer them and then enjoy the result... Normally, I use the string samples from my Kurzweil K2500 library and two software plug-ins: Garritan Orchestra and the Silver Orchestra of East/West. Final proportion is always the matter of experiment. 

On this album I could hear that you are a classically trained musician. Most of all, the two pieces of J.S. Bach reveal those influences. Are you afraid that people might say: “Here is another classical trained wonder kid that tries to impress the outside world with his classical pieces” or “Don’t give me that classical bullshit”. Don’t get me wrong I loved it all the way but I know how people sometimes think.

Hey, but then it seems that many people love it too, because I got the most of my points by reviewers exactly for these two renditions! I have always enjoyed baroque music, and the works of Bach in the first line, of course. It is a music of immense depth, and as you are working on your performance, you are actually exploring this depth, finding something that’s personally yours in it. It is amazing how different the same pieces sound in the performances of Richter, or Gould, or now of Martin Stadtfeld. I have tried to find something that is mine in these two pieces and the result had just happened, so to impress anybody was not the primary aim.

Your solo album also reveals that you like not only classical music but also blues music. Most of all the track 'Do Without Me' has all those jazzy and blues influences. How is it that a lot of classical trained musicians such as Keith Emerson or Jon Lord still like to play that kind of music?

I think that every musician has his own roots and history, and they influence the style, of course. I have played in a blues club in Ufa , from 1997 to 2001, two evenings a week, with the band and solo. That is...Otherwise, I was always thrilled by Emerson's boogie technique. His version of the Honky Tonk Train Blues and his Barrelhouse Shakedown are a challenge for any pianist - of course I have tried to learn something from his playing as well.

It’s also strange that a lot of classical trained piano players end up playing in a prog metal band like yourself. Good examples are Vitalij Kuprij who plays in Artension and Michael Pinnella who plays in Symphony X. They also both released solo albums that reveal their background. Why is that do you think?

I believe that prog and classical music come at times very close to each other. Prog - in its best examples - is no less sophisticated and technically very challenging. New Age is another good example. Tarkus of ELP performed on a grand piano works just like a contemporary classical piece you would expect to hear in a concert hall. And if you listen to Bach's Goldberg Variations performed on a Kurzweil 250 like Joel Spiegelman did, you would call it a new age. So, where exactly does the borderline lie? The immense choice of sounds today is another attraction, of course - all in all, it provides a nice option for some creative guys with the classical background to shift from one camp to another time after time (smiles).

On your solo album you have an excellent singer by the name of Henrik Plachtzik-he reminded me of John Wetton a lot. He is also a very gifted drummer. Why did you not use him for Dorian Opera? Instead bass player Joe Eisenburger had to do the lead vocals-which he did rather strong I must admit.

Hendrik is indeed a very cool singer with his own style, and indeed he was a candidate considered for Dorian Opera. But, prog metal is simply not his music - imagine Phil Collins as a frontman of Symphony X. And we four were actually pure instrumentalists, and for that time absolutely no name. So, one of us had to grab the mike, and in my opinion, Joe did more than just a good job, considering it was his debut as a lead vocalist!

Yes he did a great job! Can you explain the band name Dorian Opera?

Dorian is the name of the scale very often used in rock and jazz compositions for improvisation - so, it has nothing to do with Dorian Gray or with ancient Greek architecture in this case!
And Opera just points in a classical direction. We wanted herewith to stress both our classical and rock roots, so to speak.

Why did you include a classical piece from Vivaldi as a bonus track on the first Dorian Opera album 'No Secrets'? A piece which I loved very much!

I believe the initial idea of making a classical remake as a kind of a "topping" for a CD came from me, because I was in a process of making recordings of two Bach's pieces for No Trespassing. Oliver had suggested he would try it with the Summer Storm ( L'Estate Presto ) of Vivaldi - and he had made his rendition and had performed it solo on the Frankfurt Music Fair,  he works as an endorser for Siggi Braun Young Guitars. And his version sounded just stunning! All I had to do then was to add keyboard tracks to it. Performing this piece live with the band is huge fun.

What was your set-up for the recording of this album?

Most of my sounds come from the library of the Kurzweil K-2500, which has a few thousands of samples of everything. I also still use Roland XP-80 as a sound source, and lots of plug-ins of Native Instruments, Spectrasonics, Arturia. The sound which lands in a final mix is almost always the result of layering of what comes from various sources. The whole process is therefore experimental, creative and very exciting.

Most tracks on 'No Secrets' were written by Oliver. On four songs you contributed as a songwriter. Did you use most of your songs for your solo album or what was the reason?

Yes, that's exactly how it was with No Secrets - Oliver had already lots of ready-to-go ideas, we only had to produce them together. As a virtuoso guitar player, he can deliver you any riff you want, he has a very powerful style - much in vein of Symphony X. I have tried to add a bit of ELP-spice to it, and all in all it came out as a good mix, I believe.

Why did Michael Brettner play a guitar solo on 'Dead Or Alive'?

Michael is a friend of Oliver’s and another endorser of Siggi Braun . The idea of this featuring was, to add another new colour to the recording, and Michael had delivered a great solo. And he did not forget it, to tell his fans to check out our album, of course (smiles).

The next album with the band will be called 'Crusade 1212'. It will probably be released later this year. You managed to find two lead singers for this release. Can you tell me more about them and tell us more about the theme of the album?

Our upcoming release is a thematic album, not just a collection of songs like it was on No Secrets. This CD is dedicated to a so-called Children's Crusade, an event from medieval history which is believed to have taken place in 1212. There is still no historical consensus on this event, because the movement was supported neither by the church nor by nobility, so the sources available are rather poor. The traditional version of the story is: In 1212, some thousands of children from France and Germany led by two self-proclaimed prophets had tried to reach the Holy Land hoping to win Jerusalem back from Muslims. They also believed to do it without any armour-by peaceful means only. But, most of them had frozen to death as they were crossing the Alps, and the rest were then sold to slavery by two merchants from Marseilles. It looked like a very dramatic story to us, and we had tried to tell it from a perspective of two participants, a male and a female.

For this release, we have managed to win two really fantastic vocalists. Sven the Axe is a front-man of a power metal band Solemnity, he has a vast experience in studio recordings and live performances. His singing on a CD-preview speaks for itself, I believe. Alexandra Goess is the new female voice of Dorian Opera and the band's youngest member. She has a classical vocalist’s training behind her, and she has done an amazing job in recording her tracks for the album in a pretty short time. I am sure that playing live with this new line-up will be an amazing experience, and I am waiting with anticipation for it.

Will it be released on the same Russian label or are you looking for a new label?

Mike Lanin (MALS Rec.) had done a lot for us by promoting No Secrets online, so it was nothing wrong  to sign a contract for a debut album in 2008. But a label from Moscow cannot help us get into festivals and to other live events here in Europe. And that is the point, because playing live and even rehearsing with such a band is more than just fun. So yes, we will now look for a label with some possible connections to the live events here in our place.

Your next plans as a solo artist are to record a solo album with only pieces performed on the piano. Can we also expect an album made with a real orchestra someday?

Something in the way of Seven of Tony Banks? Must be a fascinating project, of course, the only problem would be to hire an orchestra for such a job…But let’s see what will come up in the future.

You also recorded two piano compositions for Colossus in Finland. Can you tell me more about this project?

It is an idea of Marco Bernardo’s of Colossus Magazine in Finland. The project is called Iliade Progressive Duels on Piano and it is based on the epos of Homeros about the Trojan War. The epos consists of 24 “books”, so Marco had invited 12 pianists–all with the prog background– to participate, each one had to compose and to record 2 pieces based on the books of his own choice. It is an international project, and I happen to be a part of it. The double-CD box will be released by MUSEA Rec., France later this year.

Can we expect another solo album in the near future that contains mainly music inspired by your two keyboard heroes Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson? I would love that very much!

I hope there will be more to come – I have lots of musical ideas which are only waiting to become prog or neoclassical albums!

Any other future plans which I did not mention?

I am generally open to everything that is new, creative and professional and things change fast. For now, both releases of Dorian Opera and my solo piano album are the primary tasks, and the next job is already waiting. As well as another Caribbean vacation after all of this is done, of course (smiles).

Can you name any websites for those who might like to know more about Andrew Roussak and Dorian Opera?

Please visit -
Andrew Roussak:
Album review 'Blue Intermezzo'
Dorian Opera:

Andrew, thanks for answering my questions!  

Where to buy?

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