SILENCER – Setting Metal Sights in Space
Guitarist / vocalist Keith Spargo is a man with a plan for Colorado’s Silencer. Through the years they’ve developed a sound from a power metal beginning with thrash leanings to more aggressive death/thrash – only to come back full circle to their roots of classic hard rock on their latest concept album The Great Bear. A look into the space race of the 1950’s and 1960’s – only on the Russian end of things- Silencer give the listeners food for thought on this fine release.
I gained the chance to speak to Keith shortly before his recent wedding day and impending honeymoon- and he was happy to delve deeper into the album, his views on metal as well as the drive and determination he has to put Silencer on the worldwide map.
Tell us about your personal background- how you developed your music tastes, some of your first albums/ bands you got into, and who influenced you to pick up an instrument and eventually start down the metal path?
"My first musical influences first came from my older brother. I basically followed him, tried to do what he did and get with his friends. About that time is when metal was hitting it big, during the 1980’s. One of my earliest memories was hearing AC/DC’s "For Those About To Rock" album very shortly after that, "Pyromania" was a big album too. All of a sudden I discovered Iron Maiden and Judas Priest in 1985- and it got quite a bit more serious at that point and fell into another level. I didn’t play guitar for quite a while- I couldn’t afford a lot of albums but we would borrow tapes from friends, grew up air guitaring as a kid. In college I had a friend that I would hang out with at night, we talked about picking up instruments and forming a band. In high school I had played some very bad drums in a garage and we formed a band that never left the garage. I wanted to learn how to play guitar so that I could write music for the band, so that was the plan. Our senior year, I graduated in 4 ½ years and the final semester I took some money I was supposed to be saving for my last tuition and I bought us a couple of second hand guitars and an amplifier that had two inputs so we could play at the same time. We downloaded guitar tablature from the internet and just tried to play. We had 10 songs together, I kept going with that and taking lessons. I put up some ads to find other musicians, and this was my first gigging band pre-Silencer. I would play for hours each night, at least 2-3 hours for a couple of years."
Your new album "The Great Bear" is a concept album about the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States during the 1950’s and 1960’s. How long did the album take to work on both musically and lyrically? Was it easy to do proper research to cover the story accurately- and how did you decide what sound bites to use to help flesh out the story?
"The first part of your question… we just had a lineup change, our new bassist is a good friend of mine and we discussed what we wanted the album to sound like. We had been very technical and modern with our playing for a while, we decided let’s dial it back on the influence scale and write something that rocks a bit harder. We were at a bar in Denver discussing what kind of theme we might want to have and this was two autumns ago. We are all science fiction geeks- and then we had to think about this in reverse. Previous albums we would write a song, then have to think about what it sounded like to write lyrics to it. We came up with the timeline of the story first, and then assign songs to parts of our story. It was almost like scoring a movie that hadn’t even been shot yet. It took overall 5-6 months to do the combination of the storyline and writing the music. We tracked everything musically, then the words came in towards the end of the recording process. We worked as quickly as we could.
As far as the sound bites and what not, a lot of those we created ourselves. The track "1969" which is obviously a set up piece and not necessarily a song of itself, we had to do a lot of research. Had we tried to do this pre-internet I can only imagine how tough the process would have been. We have a number of Russian friends we interviewed, including one metal friend who had a family member that retired from the military and he worked on the Russian space program- he remembered enough about the 60’s and 70’s so we had a friend Alex interview the guy and translate the thoughts back into English. Very cool information, we had to be as accurate as we could with our facts and then take a little fictional turn ourselves. We wrote a script, had the equivalent of a war room set up. When the song can’t tell the story, we were inspired of course by albums like "2112" and "Operation: Mindcrime" and that sort of thing where certain parts filling in the story."
What do you think it takes to keep the songs individual as well as make a great concept record? We know that two of your reference points when it came to "The Great Bear" were Queensryche’s "Operation: Mindcrime" and Rush’s "2112" – what makes those records so special and timeless to you?
"They have their different strengths. "Operation: Mindcrime" is an album when I make my mind up to listen to it, I need to be undisturbed so I can get all the way through it. That album helped establish them to the point that by "Empire" they were headlining and able to play the entire thing. It is pretty dense, both in storyline and musically. Ambitious. "2112" is a little the opposite- it manages to tell a lot of story in a short amount of time. It gets a lot done very quickly, and to me captured the spirit of the 1970’s- quite a bit shorter, and it’s not even the entire record. It would be pretty daunting for us to play the whole record on stage, bringing out acoustic guitars, and sound effects flown in- we did consciously write a few songs that we could just throw into a regular set list and play enough of the album. On the length side of things, "2112" was probably the bigger inspiration, we knew right away we wanted to do a side A and a side B and try to press this to vinyl- which we ended up doing. It’s a lost art on how records were arranged back then. We put ourselves in that mindset, an era that has been lost since the compact disc explosion, of where is a good lead off and break point. That’s why it’s on the shorter side. I wanted people to hit repeat or flip it over and play it again rather than think of when it’s going to be over."
I think that is something a lot of people don’t take into consideration. With the CD age people wanted to pack as much material as possible on there, and I believe they let filler come through rather than shorter albums being a little bit stronger.
"Absolutely. Iron Maiden is my bread and butter, and they’ve fell into a habit of putting at least 74 minutes of music on a record whether in my opinion it needed it or not. There’s still a lot of good stuff there, but look at Rush, Judas Priest, Kiss- all of their records back in the day were 30-35 minutes, and you would get a new record every year and a tour. You would get more story told over time, and not wait so long in between albums. I miss that, and there was zero filler back then."
You took over the vocals again from Chad Armstrong- what prompted the change and how do you feel about many of the lineup changes you’ve had considering your long history as a band?
"If there’s one thing that’s hindered us it’s that we haven’t been able to hold a solid lineup. There’s a lot of luck involved. Lineup changes take up time- finding the right musicians, getting them up to speed and they will always affect your sound and how you write. We’ve been fortunate enough to get our albums sold overseas and we appreciate that, but we do this for the love of it and make enough to put back into the band without digging much into our own pockets. So there’s not a lot of motivation for certain people to stick around if things aren’t going exactly the way they want. We had 3 guys leave and there was another record pretty much fleshed out years ago writing wise that will never see the light of day. Chad, our old drummer and our old bass player left at the time- and they had a hand in the writing of that record. The sound had progressed to the point where we wondered if we should even call the band Silencer. We did something that we hadn’t done since the beginning of the band and that was actually take a break. We did nothing band related for a while- it took connecting with Patrick to get this going. I wanted to bring some of these new influences out, and my vocals would suit this style- more direct and simpler. The challenge will be covering the material from the last two albums live, which were written with very frantic guitar work, knowing there was a dedicated vocalist to it. But we will figure out a way, as I’m a believer in covering every era of the band when we perform live. I figure if Geddy Lee and Dave Mustaine can do the left brain/ right brain thing, so can I. It’s worked out okay, feels good to be a four piece again, feels good to be able to bring a roadie with us again."
What are your thoughts on the Colorado metal scene? We know that Jag Panzer is probably one of the more well-known acts, but there seems to be a healthy thrash scene given the attention of Candlelight Records’ Havok through the past few years…
"There is a class of bands when we started that we could play with, Jag Panzer didn’t gig a ton locally but we would often put a good bill together with them. Harry is still doing Satan’s Host, and we played with them recently and he’s still a great vocalist. There is an absolute up and coming class of bands in Colorado, two of the better ones are Havok and Speed Wolf. There is a lot of melodic death metal too- Allegaeon signed with Metal Blade, and others are closer. They tend to gig a lot more together because they are closer to each other in age, they know each other and friends. Havok has done a couple of shows with us, they are touring a lot. Their style and ours compliment each other well, it’s going to take a little bit of us playing out more and re-establishing ourselves to get something going again. I’m a very big proponent of camaraderie in a scene, and we are never going to be like NWOBHM or the Bay Area but we do have some great bands in Colorado."
Your day job is an engineer for Ball Aerospace- and you are in the process of getting married. How do you balance your personal and professional careers with your work in Silencer?
"I wish I had a formula I could write out. Work- that’s where I met my wife to be. This applies to everybody, and it’s advice I’ve given to bands to find the work/life balance. You have to make yourself irreplaceable. Being in a band is more than shredding on your instrument, if you want to do this and play on tour outside of your home area you often need to exceed the normal vacation time you get at a full time job. If you strive to be good at your job to the point where they can’t afford to lose you it’s truly good. My job is pretty demanding, but it works well for me. I do have quite a few fans through work, it’s kind of funny when I walk through the building that I work in day to day there may be a guy in a Silencer shirt, throwing the devil’s horns so you’ll see other people giving odd looks. They will also come out to the shows in droves, which is very cool. A lot of folks figure out I play in a metal band, but there’s a huge curiosity factor about what I do. They see I can kick ass at my job and at music. The life balance, my fiancé is very supportive of my music. There’s some fascination and pride, she knows about the time that I need to do this. You have to be pretty mindful of each other’s personal situations and when I need to stay home because my wife needs me. You do your best and we are able to keep our heads above water."
How do you view the development of the band from your "Sledgehammer Chiropractic" demo start in 1998 through your previous two albums, "Death Of Awe" in 2005 and "Divisions" in 2009?
"That’s interesting. Ironically, let’s say you talked to me back in 1998 and said prior to us making our first demo tape (and I had been playing guitar for a year and a half at the time) and asked what do you want to sound like for influences, "The Great Bear" is what is the closest to what we are going for. "Kosmos" was pretty hard not to be influenced to what was going on- we were bordering from thrash to almost death, outside of the vocals. We spent a lot of time in the van. To tour the closest market outside of Denver is 7 hours. A lot of music gets listened to, and things become influenced in the back of your brain. I didn’t want to get rid of British guitar harmonies, then we kept ratcheting things up and the Swedish death explosion hit and there was some real shredding work in there. The vocals weren’t what you hummed along to, the guitar melodies mattered more. "Death of Awe" was a huge jump from "Structures", but I look back at how fast and heavy that record was, we intentionally took out all the empty spaces so you really couldn’t even get a breath before the next one would kick in. I defend that record, "Divisions" was vocally similar and we got Chad to sing a little more- it was musically a little cleaner. If you compare early Beatles to the latter stuff, it’s very different. The irony of this new record is it’s the closest thing we’ve done since the demo days, so I see everything in Silencer as coming full circle."
You mentioned you were able to get the new album pressed on vinyl, how important is physical product versus digital product for a band like Silencer?
"We want to cover every format, so as a band we try to give the people multiple options. In general, we metalheads are fortunate that it’s pretty much the sole genre that the full package still appeals. The live presence, imagery, art work, they all matter. People want t-shirts that are tied into the album artwork, people are collectors. Vinyl has an absolute timeless appeal, and CD’s were a given too. With the vinyl we are including a digital download code so they can carry their music on their Ipod or computer."
What concerns you most about the world we live in today in 2012?
"Man, that’s a topic I could talk a lot about. A couple of major things. I’m pretty cognizant of the Earth and the biggest single contributor to any unrest to the environment is population. The projected major shortage will affect everyone will be a shortage of water. There’s an immense drain of that resource to even make hamburgers. There will then be a battle between people to control these resources. I don’t know the answer to it- it feels like a train with no brakes. In my own little world I drive a gas efficient car, I’ve done the little things to change light bulbs over, turn the thermostats down, my air conditioner turns down during peak hours when I’m not at home to save energy. We are conscious about what we buy and eat. I’d rather get used to this now than be forced to do it. It’s a hard world to think about. I don’t have a solution for what the biggest problem is."
What do you consider your best qualities as a person- and what do you think is one area you need to improve upon in the upcoming years?
"I’ve been pretty driven, maybe at the cost of sleep. If there’s something I make up my mind to do and I want to do it I know it’ll happen. I surround myself with good people to do that- finding creative people in a band, a great team at work, making friends with all the right people- even on the home front. Luckily the band is at a point where a lot of the groundwork is done- we don’t have to worry about hanging up 300 flyers on a street near a venue we were at. So I can balance my life a little better. I am always going to be creative and make music. I hope my motivation level doesn’t put blinders on me- I need to put energy in other places too."