Interview Sean Timms (Unitopia)

"Artificial is about all different aspects of life that are changing in our society"

(May 2010, text by Henri Strik, edited by Peter Willemsen, pictures courtesy of Unitopia)

When the Australian band Unitopia released their first album More Than A Dream in 2007, nobody actually believed that they would become one of the most important new progressive rock bands. They already impressed many people with their second release The Garden in 2008, but their latest release Artificial brings them to an even higher level. For me a good reason to interview one of the founding members of Unitopia and multi-instrumentalist Sean Timms about their new album and a bit more...

Can you explain why you called the album Artificial and what’s the concept behind this title?

Sean Timms: “First of all, please let me thank you for your interest and support for our music. It’s greatly appreciated!
You’re welcome!
“The original title for the album was Artificial Intelligence. It was based upon a concept put forward by our guitarist Matt Williams. As we wrote the lyrics, it progressed to a more universal concept about artificiality in general. This led to the renaming of the album to the more simple title Artificial.

The concept behind this album is about all different aspects of life that are changing in our society, some for the better and some for the worse. We have amazing technologies that enable us to communicate almost instantly with anyone in the world, yet we don’t ever speak to our next-door neighbour. Where’s the logic in that? Let’s all use these technologies to make our lives more wonderful, but not lose sight of the importance of real person to person communication.”

When did you start writing the music for Artificial? Was the concept clear from the beginning or did you also have other ideas?

“We started writing Artificial right after finishing The Garden. Matt came up with the concept early in the piece and our lead singer Mark Trueack and I just ran with it. We had another concept that we’d been working on which we shelved for a while. This other concept is huge and will be at least a triple CD-release. We wanted to give our fans some quality music in the interim and so Artificial was born.”

I must confess that the Artificial Suite was very well done, it almost sounds like one entire piece. What was the most difficult part to do during the recording of this suite?

“Thank you…it’s always good to know that people such as yourself are aware of what we’re trying to do as a whole. Even though we are very proud of The Garden it was probably a little long-winded and fragmented album. We wanted the new album to be a lot more cohesive and tight, both sonically and conceptually.

The most difficult part is being able to criticize your own work without becoming precious about it. Mark and I do this very well with each other. We also had a lot more input from the rest of the band not only regarding their own performances, but the general feel and mix of the tracks. This holistic approach meant that we now have more input from our band members and they have much more ownership of the finished product. For instance, our drummer Jamie Jones stated that this was the only recording he had ever done that he was proud to have an international audience listening to.”

Who do we hear on the sound fragment on the track Artificial World and why did you use it?

“This sound fragment is from an old film in public domain about a criminal who has plastic surgery to conceal his identity from the police. The phrase is from his doctor who’s describing the procedure and its effects on his psyche. We occasionally put a bit of a dialogue in our songs if we feel it adds to the overall effect and understanding of the track. It’s one of our little trademarks if you like.”

On 'Nothing Lasts Forever' the many Beatles-influences are obvious. The Mellotron-samples sound like 'Strawberry Fields Forever' and I recognize the Bach-trumpet of 'Penny Lane'. The orchestral part reminded me of 'A Day In A Life', and the end of 'Come Together'. Besides you mention the song titles 'Come Together' and 'Fool On The Hill'. Was there a special reason for doing so?

“Absolutely…there’s always a reason for the things we do, even though the reasoning might be a bit obscure at times. The song is all about nostalgia, looking back on earlier days when life seemed to be so much simpler. The Beatles-references hearken back to a time before technology ruled the world and relationships seemed to mean more. It also cautions us that nothing lasts forever even though we might feel safe and comfortable in our particular circumstances.”

I like all tracks, but Tesla in particular. That’s definitely my favourite track. Why did you decide to include Nikola Tesla in this suite?

“Tesla is credited with being the father of artificial intelligence so how could we not? He is one of history’s most fascinating people with many of the faults and failings that we see so often in today’s society. He was socially aloof and had obsessive compulsive tendencies. He was a brilliant man ahead of his time yet he could be very cold, but couldn’t forge a meaningful relationship with the opposite sex, instead preferring the company of his pet pigeons. There were so many facets to his personality that we needed to make the song a decent length in order to give the listener some kind of idea as to what the man was like. We could probably have written a whole album around him alone!”

This song has an instrumental part that starts with a fragment that reminded me of Firth Of Fifth/Cinema Show from Genesis. Did you notice this yourself as well?

“We never hear the references that people talk about until they’re pointed out. I guess it does sound a little like it now that you mention it, but it’s never our intention to be a derivative of other bands. It’s just a byproduct of the fact that we’ve grown up listening to this music since we were young.”

Why did you use the bonus tracks mentioned as Relative World only for the special edition of the album? I understand that they stand on their own, but without those tracks the album’s duration would be very short if I might say so. Why didn’t you release just one version with 13 tracks?

“These other tracks we’d written didn’t quite fit into the concept of the Artificial Suite, but we wanted to make them available for our listeners. It was Inside Out’s suggestion to create a Digipack version with the extra tracks to make that version a bit more ‘special’. I think it was more a marketing decision than a musical one.”

I mentioned the Relative World already. What do you mean with this title?

“Nothing in particular, it’s just a play on words borrowing from the titles of two of the songs.”

The lyrics for What Kind Of World? are very sad in my opinion. Do you see hope for a better future for all of us?

“Absolutely! I wrote that song after I’d seen the first ultrasound of my baby boy. It really got me questioning what kind of world we were bringing him into. Is it a cold hard place full of mistrust, disaster at every turn and global financial and ecological ruin or is it a world of wonder, love, acceptance, tolerance and hope? This is the kind of world I want for my son and my wife and I will do everything I can to make sure his world is everything it should be. My son is my hope for a better future.”

On the new album you worked with another drummer and bass player. How did this happen?

“How do I put this nicely..? The drummer we used for The Garden was very committed to other endeavors and couldn’t commit the time for developing his craft. He was consistently late for rehearsals and recording sessions. It took a long time to record, edit and mix the drums for The Garden and I didn’t want to go through that all again. We felt that we needed someone who was committed to his art and really had some great playing technique. We auditioned three players and Jamie was the standout although the other two players were extremely good as well. It was a hard choice.

Our bass player Shireen Khemiani is an amazing player, but because of that fact she’s very much in demand in Adelaide. She got offered a six night a week gig playing for a show and couldn’t afford to pass it up, so she reluctantly resigned, feeling that she couldn’t commit to the next album or any touring for a while. Again, we auditioned a few bass players and Shaun Duncan was the standout. I’ve worked with Shaun on an off for nearly thirty years and he’s a consummate professional. His work on the new album, as well as Jamie’s, is nothing short of amazing! Unfortunately, Shaun had to resign as our bass player as well! We’re now in the process of ‘putting the word out’ to see who might be interested in auditioning for the part.”

I believe Ed Unitsky has become very important for the band since he did the cover design and art work for your second album The Garden and also for Artificial. How did he get in touch with the band and isn’t it sad that he didn’t design the cover for your debut album More Than A Dream, because it looks a bit cheap compared to the other releases.

“Ed is almost like an extra band member. He has been incredibly supportive and accommodating and has become a good friend as well. Mark Trueack (see picture) actually found him on MySpace. We were reluctant to use someone who wasn’t local as we firm believe in trying to keep people employed in our own state and involved with what we do. For example, we do all our mastering with Neville Clark at Disk Edits, a local company. We definitely want to support local industry and talent. However, in the case of the artwork we had given briefs to a few artists and they just didn’t get what we were on about. Reluctantly, we gave Ed the brief for The Garden and the initial concepts that he came up with blew our minds! It was a ‘no brainer’ to use him for all future releases. He just ‘gets us’.

I know what you mean about our first album cover. It’s all we could afford at the time. However, we do have plans to re-release a limited edition version of More Than a Dream with some remixed and bonus tracks with an Ed Unitsky-cover, so stay tuned!”

How does Ed get involved in doing the artwork, do you give him some ideas first or does he have total artistic freedom?

“We give him an idea of where the album is headed conceptually and then he comes up with some ideas. It’s not total artistic freedom, but it comes pretty close.”

Why does Unitopia use so many musical influences in their music like world music, jazz, easy listening, classical music and progressive rock?

“I think that it’s because we have so many influences and such a broad range of musical tastes. Personally, I love everything from Gershwin and Stravinsky to Yes, Genesis and Marillion. I also love James Taylor, Oscar Peterson, The Beatles, Steve Hackett, Nicolette Larson and pop from the seventies and eighties.”

Why did you release The Garden as a double album? It must have cost a lot of money?

“I’m not sure how much it cost. The people at InsideOut believed in us and they were prepared to release it as an album from a relative newcomer in the world of progressive music. We felt that we had enough good songs to release it as a double album.”

Was The Garden also a concept album? Who, for instance, is Angeliqua?

The Garden has a very loose concept about struggling with the areas of your life that are doing you harm and eventually overcoming them. Angeliqua was just a fictitious female. It’s a bit of a ghost story about ‘the one who got away’. Mark had run into this girl not long before we started writing the song who he had gone out with as a younger man and began wondering what his life would have been like if he’d have stayed with her. We got Kiki, a friend of mine to sing some of the Mid-Eastern vocals on it and she was blown away by the title, admitting that Angeliqua was her middle name!”

Why did you sign for a German record label since The Garden and why did Unicorn Digital, who released your first album, not continue with you?

“It was more of a case of us not continuing with them. They’d done a very good job with More Than A Dream, but we felt we needed to go to the next level and Unicorn didn’t have the resources to do that for us. InsideOut offered us a three album deal and we said hell yeah!”

Why were you dressed by French Connection Australia?

“We needed a ‘look’ for the album inner sleeve photo shoot, so I approached our local FC-store and asked if they’d be interested in helping us out with the loan of some clothes. They said yes and I returned the favour by crediting them with it on the CD notes.”

On the first album you used African elements on the track Take Good Care. Was there a special reason to do so?

Take Good Care was the first song that Mark and I ever wrote together. We really had no idea what style or musical direction we were going for at that stage. I can’t really remember the reasons behind the arrangement as it’s about fourteen years ago that we started together now. I think we definitely wanted a world music feel and the African elements seemed to fit the bill. It developed a bit from its original concept. Initially, we had Irish Uilleann pipes in the intro, a different chorus and no orchestral intro.”

The orchestral sound on your debut album sounds very good. Was it all done with violins and cellos or did you use keyboards as well?

“We used the Adelaide Art Orchestra conducted by Tim Sexton. I also added orchestral samples to make the orchestra sound even bigger. It’s a technique I still use. For Artificial, we had a fifteen piece string section which we recorded in Matt’s studio. I must say a huge thanks to principal violinist and good friend Carolyn Lam who has organized all of the string players for all three albums.”

Did you play most of the instruments yourself on that album?

“I played all of the keys, programmed the guide bass, drums and the orchestral and percussion parts. I also recorded and sang a lot of the backing vocals. There’s a bit of acoustic guitar on the album that’s me as well. Apart from that, it’s the rest of the guys in the band.”

Why did you use a lot of old sound fragments on all albums?

“I guess it’s just one of our trade marks. We call them Easter Eggs.”

You and Mark Trueack are the nucleus of the band. Can you tell me how you met each other?

“We met through a mutual friend who ran a record store. He thought we might get on well together as our musical tastes are very similar and so is our sense of humour. We caught up for a meal and a few beers and have been inseparable ever since!”

You also recorded a song for a Flower Kings tribute album. Are you all fans of them and can you tell me more about this project?

“Yes, we are very big fans. How can you not be? They’ve helped put progressive music back on the musical map. The project contains a number of progressive rock bands doing their take on their favourite FK songs.”

Can you tell a bit more about the CD-singles you released and about the Gargoyle-album you released yourself? Is it still available and does it contain progressive rock as well?

“We’ve released a couple of CD singles, indeed. The first is There’s A Place which we released to help the Childhood Cancer Foundation. It’s not Mark singing the lead vocals, but my ex-wife Neusa, who does a lot of backing vocals on the first album. The song also appeared on the Stomp Out Cancer compilation CD available on iTunes. The second single was 321 and was released to match with the anniversary of the rescue of Tasmanian miners about whom the song was written. Both are available from our website, although There’s A Place is nearly sold out. The Gargoyle CD, also available from our website, CD Baby or iTunes is a compilation of my orchestral film music.”

You are coming to Europe later this year visiting England, Belgium and Germany. There are two gigs scheduled in The Netherlands. The first one is in Zoetermeer at De Boerderij. I believe you are going to record a DVD at this venue. A second gig is planned for the Blues Café in Apeldoorn. Rumour has it that this performance will be acoustic. Is this all true and if so are these recordings used for a live album or DVD?

“I think that’s all true. Hopefully we will get a huge turnout and we will definitely release a live CD/DVD.”

Can you tell our readers why you had to cancel the RosFest- gig earlier this year?

“There were many reasons. The main one being that it’s very difficult to get a working visa for the US. We had to fill out forms online which didn’t work most of the time due to technical issues the consulate were having with their website. We then had to do a 1500 km round trip to Melbourne, the nearest city with a US consulate. We had to pay for the trip to Melbourne, the visas, the plane tickets, the freight costs etcetera, and all for one gig at RosFest!

Our bass player Shaun had just joined, so we didn’t have time to get the right visa for him. In addition we had some personal issues with some band members which I can’t go into. It turns out that Mark wouldn’t have been there anyway as he got stranded in Germany on a business trip for about five days due to the volcanic eruption on Iceland and he didn’t get home until the Saturday of the RosFest weekend. He was also crook as a dog due to an infection he received while overseas. He was hospitalized for two and a half days over there! All in all, things worked out for the best.”

That’s all, Sean thanks for answering my questions.

“Thanks, it was an absolute pleasure!”

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