Interview Corey Lennox (Surreal)

"Surreal has always been in an awkward place between a full band and a solo project"

(April 2024, text by Aad Bannink, edited by Peter Willemsen)

Somewhere back in 2008, I discovered the Atlanta (Georgia, USA) based band Surreal. The band makes music which is positioned between progressive rock and indie rock: Marillion meets B-52's, from which the lather also hails from Georgia. I found this rather young band renewing and refreshing. In the following years, I kept following Surreal and I got in contact with frontman Corey Lennox. This contact kept me informed and so I didn't miss any releases of the band. In December 2023 they released their album Prismatic Spectrum (see review). I was really flabbergasted I always believed in the band and for me they were ready for a wider audience. Prismatic Spectrum had such a potential that I wanted to interview some members of the band. They surely deserve a platform outside the USA and especially in the Netherlands, since my country has a lot of progressive rock bands, which are not always world famous, but they have a certain status and quite a lot of followers. Therefore, I invited Corey Lennox for a chat, which he luckily accepted. I hope that the readers of Background Magazine will enjoy the interview and please, check out the interesting band Surreal

Corey Lennox
Hello Corey, you are a multi-instrumentalist, producer and graduated from Berklee College Of Music, so music is in your DNA. Did you grow up in a musical family?
"Well, it's kind of funny, because there's not a single musically gifted person on either my mother's or my father's side of the family! And yet me and my brother and sister are all musically inclined. I feel that maybe this was just God's plan for me, because there's no other way to explain where it came from. I've always loved music. My parents say one of my first full 'phrases' I ever said as a toddler was a lyric from a song from the B-52's!"

I know you for quite some years now and to me you are an excellent musician, singer and songwriter. Can you remember when you wrote your first song?
"Definitely! That first song changed everything for me. I was about to start my sophomore year of high school, and I had a Dream Theater song stuck in my head and I thought that I must try to write my own song. At the time I didn't really know how to professionally record real instruments, but I made a techno song inside my computer called Across The Sun and I remember being so blown away that I was able to create a real track. From that moment on I knew I had to pursue music or die trying!"

Were you active in school bands during high school or college, and if so, would you please tell us something about that?
"I was very involved. I started Surreal in high school with Brandon Horsley, and we played tons of gigs, house parties, venues in Atlanta, and we even won a contest and opened for VAST (an alternative rock band based in Seattle, AB). I joined a ton of bands during my time at Berklee as well. At one point I was in five different bands, including a Pink Floyd cover band, but nothing ever really came of it. When I came back home to Atlanta after graduating, I started Surreal back up again, and that sort of continued from there."

With what kind of music did you grow up?
"As a kid I loved Smash Mouth and the B-52's, and I would sit in front of our stereo system and look at the album art and just bask in the music. I also loved Jimmy Buffett and the soundtrack from Grease (so random!) But when I was a teenager I got more into rock music. Green Day, Metallica, and Linkin Park were my first rock bands."

When came your love for progressive rock to the surface?
"This is a funny story that not many people know. My friend Matt and I used to be active on this online message board for a game called Magic: The Gathering. And some of the people there liked Dream Theater, which my friend and I mistakenly thought was Dream Street, a poppy boy band at the time. So, we used to tease some of the Dream Theater fans about it. One day Matt told me that he checked out Dream Theater and they're actually incredible. So, he showed me Fatal Tragedy and that changed my entire life. I was blown away by the musicality of it, the solos, the vocals, the emotion: it had everything. I came across the Metropolis Pt. 2 album in a store soon thereafter and bought it, and that CD was absolutely life changing as every Dream Theater fan knows. Then I became hungry to discover a whole world of prog like Rush, Spock's Beard, and Marillion. It became the soundtrack to some of the best years of my life."

As said you studied at Berklee College of Music. In the Netherlands a lot of progressive rock fans know this institute as the cradle of Dream Theater. Can you tell us something about your study at Berklee?
Corey Lennox at Berklee
"Dream Theater is why I was initially interested in Berklee as well. They're actually known for being more of a jazz school, so there were some things I learned that were really enriching, and other things that didn't really apply to the kind of music I wanted to make at all. I really enjoyed things like music theory and harmony, the private lessons on my instrument, songwriting, and production, but I wasn't as crazy about learning to arrange horns for big band and swing, conducting, and classical counterpoint.  But all in all,  it was an amazing experience. The best part was being surrounded by all the other musically talented students and professors, and just getting immersed in that world for a few years. I could probably do a whole interview just about my time there!"

I think we can call you a multi-instrumentalist, and beside that a vocalist. What do you consider your main instrument?
"Piano is definitely my main instrument. That was my principal instrument at Berklee, and I work as a piano teacher for my day job. But since Brandon plays keys, I ended up doing guitar for Surreal because I had a little experience there. But I've never considered myself a real guitarist. As for vocals, I had a really tough time picking up singing, but I've always really wanted to sing my songs since I'm the one writing them. It feels very personal to me, so I knew I wanted to do the vocals as well."

On which instruments you've had a proper education, or were you partly self-teaching?
"I've had proper lessons on piano, guitar, and voice, but I've also had stretches where I wasn't taking any lessons and mainly just doing self-teaching. Guitar is probably where I've had the least training. And for vocals, I'd never really had any lessons until 2017 when I started studying with an amazing coach in Nashville who worked at one of the biggest vocal studios in the country. He is an incredible vocalist who can sing literally anything from Led Zeppelin to Journey. I knew I needed a lot of help, ha, ha! He really made me work and helped me think about some things in different ways and improve my technique a lot."

Would you please tell us briefly the history of your band Surreal? And when and by whom was it founded?
"My friend Brandon and I have been buddies since I was just five years old! So, we started jamming in high school with a friend named Kyle McCarthy who's an amazing drummer. You can hear him on the EP The Autumn. Originally I wanted to call the band Prism, but I felt it was a little generic, and Brandon came up with Surreal, which we all loved. We were obsessed with progressive rock and wanted to create music that was more substantial than a lot of the more mainstream stuff that was going on at the time. We played a bunch of gigs as I mentioned earlier, everywhere from musical venues to restaurants and skating rinks!"
From L to R: Brandon Horsley, Corey Lennox, Jeffrey Matthews and Daniel Graham

How would you describe the music you typically create with Surreal?
"I would say that it's prog meets alternative pop and rock. It's uplifting, melodic, and progressive, yet catchy. There was a sound I really wanted to hear, and I decided to just create that myself!"

Surreal as a studio band or project delivered some awesome records. Are there any plans to perform your material live on stage?
"We did a lot of performances before the world shut down with corona in 2020. We played nearly every venue in Athens, Georgia, which is a big spot for indie music in the southeast of the United States, and we've played in Atlanta quite often as well. We used to have practices every week. But right now, both Brandon Horsley and Daniel Graham have two kids each, and we haven't practiced since before Starmaps & Constellations was released, so it's safe to say we've become more of a studio project. I love playing live, but right now it's too hard to get us all in a room at the same time!"

How does your creative process look like?
"I'm very 'go with the flow'. I'll go months without being particularly inspired, and then all of a sudden I'll get an idea and just disappear into my studio for days. I usually like to write melody first because that's what's most important to me, then I'll add lyrics afterwards. I always try to think about 'what would I like to hear next as a listener'. That always helps me figure out what the next step should be. Another thing is I'll come up with random ideas and save them for later. Sometimes I write a chorus and then years later come up with a random verse idea and realize they'll work perfectly together. So, I'm a big fan of writing something and then just waiting for the perfect time to use it later on."

I follow Surreal since Autumn was released in 2008. I noticed development in style. When I listened to the latest album Prismatic Spectrum, I felt that you made a rather big change. To me the album sounds much more consistent or mature. Can you imagine that, or is it totally unrecognizable to you?
"I'm impressed you know that one! Autumn was the album we made fresh out of high school, and we were very new at the time. But you're absolutely right! With each release I really make a conscious effort to get things sounding as professional as I possibly can. We're not on a big label, we don't have help from producers or audio engineers, so I will say this is one thing I really, really stress about. And I'm glad it came across!"

On the new album the band has been reduced to two persons: Jeffrey Matthews on drums and some guitar, and you playing all the other instruments. On former albums Surreal had a bigger line-up. Can you tell me why you made that choice?
Prismatic Spectrum
"That is very good question. Surreal has always been in an awkward place between a full band and a solo project, like The Smashing Pumpkins. I write all the songs, but for certain albums like The Autumn and The Rush, I insisted on having everyone play their own instrumental parts and lending their own style to the songs. However, I think around 2019 Daniel actually left the band to focus on his own music with Great Wide Nothing. He decided to come back at some point during the creation process of Starmaps & Constellations, but I had already recorded nearly all the bass parts myself. Brandon has been falling out of love with rock music since 2018 and has always preferred playing live as opposed to playing in the studio, so I did the keyboard parts as well. By the time we got to Prismatic Spectrum, Brandon has confided in me that he doesn't enjoy rock music at all anymore, not even Dream Theater! He's been much more into electronic and dance music for about six years now. It was sad to hear, but I wasn't surprised because we're still best friends and I've seen him gravitating towards those different styles of music. And since Surreal hadn't been practicing live, Daniel and I haven't collaborated on anything for years either.
I'd always preferred the idea of Surreal being a full band, and I think music turns out better when more people contribute. In an ideal world where we got to do this full time I'd love to have full input from every different band member, but just where we all were at the time, it seemed the best way to go was just to fully embrace doing everything myself. With Jeffrey on drums of course because that's one instrument I definitely can't play to prog rock standards!"

Your wife Anna also contributed on some tracks. I was pleasantly surprised by her clear voice. Is she a professional singer? Was it hard to convince her to contribute on the album?
"I may be biased but I love Anna's voice! She's not a professional but she sang in a choir at high school, and she's actually great at impersonating different singers. She can do voices ranging from Snowy White to Christina Aguilera. It wasn't hard to convince her because recording in the studio is very private. I got her to sing live with me once and she had such bad stage fright that she said that she was never going to do it again!"

In my reviews I stated that Surreal reminds me a bit of Dream Theater. I think musically there are some interfaces, but also vocally. Your voice has some similarities with the voice of James LaBrie. Would you please reflect on my opinion?
"That's such a huge compliment! I don't even think we're worthy of it! Dream Theater absolutely blows my mind and inspires me like no other band, and it's been my life's goal to just write music 1/100th as good as theirs. I think listening to James LaBrie and loving Dream Theater so much, has just influenced my phrasing and my approach, but it's not a conscious thing. I personally love the voice of LaBrie, even though his sound is a little divisive. But we both tend to do things a little cleaner, and I learned how to unlock my high range by trying to emulate what he does. There is one singer who I actually tried to consciously emulate when I was starting out and that's Steve Hogarth from Marillion! He is a phenomenal vocalist, and the more I learn about singing the more impressed I become by his technique, emotions and delivery. Hogarth and LaBrie are both one-of-a-kind talents who've really influenced me."

The track Suffocating is my favourite track on Prismatic Spectrum. Would you tell us the background of this track?
"This one and Muzzle were the hardest tracks to write, but they also ended up being some of my favourites. We don't lean into our 'harder' side as often as a lot of bands do. I typically like keeping things lighter like for instance Neal Morse and Enchant. The idea behind Prismatic Spectrum was that each song would represent a different emotion. And certain emotions required some heavier sounds. Funnily enough, my least favourite emotion by far is fear, which was the emotion behind Suffocating. I'd actually like to think I'm pretty good at dealing with some of the other more negative emotions, like anger or grief, but fear is tough for me. I'm not a fearful person necessarily, but I've got one or two phobias like anyone else and in those moments it can be almost impossible to think logically. It really can feel like you're suffocating. So, I think this song was me wrestling through that. Believe it or not, but the music side of it was very loosely inspired by a song called Tomorrow from a pop-punk band called SR-71. And a little Linkin Park is in there too. You have the hard rock elements with a little touch of electronic flavour on top.
There's a cool transition from fear to more of a 'wonder' kind of sound that I've been wanting to use for years, and you hear it in the bridge where it brightens up and becomes hopeful. I find it fascinating that the same arpeggio can sound scary or hopeful depending on what chords you put beneath it, so I really enjoyed playing around with that."

The theme of astrophysics is recurring on the latest albums. Do you have special interest in that subject?
"I don't really have an interest in it at all, although crazily enough that's what our original drummer Kyle does for a living now! I just like the imagery."
Corey Lennox

Are there certain themes you like to write lyrics about?
"I really enjoy writing about the introspective elements of our lives, which I guess is why I did a whole album on different emotions! But I write a lot about trying to find your way, trying to figure out which direction to take, and of course I also like writing love songs as well. I view life as a grand adventure and music is one of the best ways to tell those stories."

Of course you listen to other music. Would you share with us which bands or artists you enjoy listening to?
"Oh, my goodness! That's too much music to list. Obviously, I love prog: Dream Theater, Spock's Beard, Marillion, Rush, just to name a few. I'm also a huge fan of Smashing Pumpkins and Muse. In terms of mainstream bands, that's where I pull a lot of the more emotional elements of our sound, for instance U2. Even though their music is really simple, it's amazing what they can do with just two or three chords. I pull a lot of influence from Dashboard Confessional as well. A lot of prog fans might not be as familiar with them, but I think Chris Carrabba is hands down the best songwriter within that pop-rock world. I also really enjoy Coldplay, who are very mainstream, but they also try to evolve their sound and do some interesting yet listenable things with each new album. I'm very into some dance music too such as ATB, Porter Robinson and Illenium, which might surprise people. Other favourites in no particular order include amongst others Neal Morse, Enchant, Styx, The Cure, Queen, Yes, The Beatles, Boston, Flying Colors, Green Day, Metallica, Led Zeppelin and Linkin Park."

Three years ago, I was pleasantly surprised by a video you published on which you collaborated with James LaBrie on the Dream Theater track Wait For Sleep. Would you please tell us how this collaboration came about?
"This was actually a Christmas present from my sister and her husband! James LaBrie is on a site called Cameo where you can purchase shoutouts from certain celebrities who've signed up with them. However, since they told James I went to Berklee, he really went the extra mile and sung an acappella version of Wait For Sleep perfectly in key for me to make a duet with! I mean, that was an absolute life's dream come true. There's no other way to say it. That was just so freaking cool."

What career would you have had if you weren't a musician?
"Well, honestly I don't know. Sometimes I feel music is all I really know how to do well. If I had to pick something I guess I'd say marketing, because I've had to learn a lot about that as an independent musician and it's somewhat interesting to me, but even then it's not something I could really see myself doing professionally."

For many people music is a hobby. For you it's a profession. What are your hobbies beside the music?
"That's tough because virtually I spend all my time in music in one form or another. But I love exploring and travelling, going on walks, and so on. It's really fulfilling to me to just wander and see new places. I really enjoy outdoor activities like tubing, skiing, hiking, although I'm not particularly athletic. I'll very rarely draw or make art as well. People are always surprised when I can draw half decently...ha, ha! When I was a kid that was one area I really gravitated towards."

Background Magazine is based in the Netherlands. Have you ever visited our country or some other places in Europe?
"I think I went to Amsterdam once with my parents for a connecting flight when I was younger. All we had time to do was grab a drink at an outdoor cafe and then catch our next flight! But I'd love to actually go more intentionally and spend more time there as an adult. I've been to Paris twice, London twice, Dublin, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Brussels, Antwerp, Rome, and Florence as well. I love Europe. The culture is so rich in each different country, and it just feels really invigorating to get to experience it. My wife speaks fluently French, and I spoke enough to get by when we went. My brother taught himself Italian and he's spent months and months there. You see, my mother is Italian, and my great-great-grandfather was an immigrant from Italy. My father's family Lennox, also has ties to Edinburgh which I didn't realize until after I went there!"

You're also a piano teacher. Do you give your lessons through internet, or do you prefer one on one personal lessons?
"Most of my lessons are in person around where I live in Georgia. It's definitely easier to teach in person!"

What is the best advice you ever gave to a student?
"I always say persistency is more important than talent. I've seen people who are extremely naturally gifted that give up as soon as something actually challenges them. I've seen other people with no natural talent put in the time and effort and go on to be incredible. One thing that really affected me was when one of my students almost died from an adverse reaction to a vaccine. He was a kid in high school who had a brain inflammation that almost killed him. He was paralyzed for a while, and bedridden for months. He survived, but when he came back to lessons he had neurological issues, and his hands were shaking. But he always had the best attitude. He never minded when something was difficult. He never complained or got down on himself. And eventually he ended up being one of my best students! Now he's totally back to normal too. Just an amazing guy and true testament to perseverance."

What's next for Surreal? When you look ten years ahead where would you like to stand in music?
"I'm not sure what's next for Surreal. Usually after I write and make an album I need a little time to re-charge. It's really intense going through that whole process as any musician knows! So right now, I'm focusing more on my solo music which is a little more straight-ahead than the prog stuff. But either way in ten years I would love to be able to make way more of an impact with my music. I don't care about fame, because at my core I'm quite an introvert. I always say my ideal would be to reach the level of someone like John Rzeznik (singer-guitarist of Goo Goo Dolls, AB). Hardly anyone I've talked to knows him by name, but there's not a person alive who hasn't heard Iris by the Goo Goo Dolls! Even if you don't think you have, I promise you know that song. I want to be the same way. I want my music to make an impact and enrich people's lives, but I don't need to be some household name or anything. So that's what I'm working towards!"

Corey, I would like to thank you for this interview and for your time. It was really a pleasure chatting with you. I hope you enjoyed my questions and didn't find them boring.
"I loved answering them, man. It's been really fun to delve deeper into all this with you!"

More info about Surreal on the Internet:

       review album 'Starmaps & Constellations' (2020)
       review album 'Prismatic Spectrum' (2023)

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