SYMPHONY X – interview
My personal listening statistics have placed Symphony X on the first position for many years in a row, thus explaining the enthusiasm to quickly click on the ‘buy ticket’ button the moment they were released for public sale for the Oslo event. While I had my share of prog music encounters in my childhood, I think the insanely powerful vocals combined with the story-telling melodies is what made me play Symphony X’ albums on repeat for a long time. I would probably want to sit down for hours with these guys and dissect every song of theirs, but when you know you get to ‘steal away’ some of their time in between soundcheck/dinner/concert, you have to try to grab more ‘actual’ information. This is what I tried to do with the below interview with both Michael Romeo and Michael Lepond, taken prior to their Oslo show on May 21st, 2019.
The interview is trying to briefly cover where the band is now, after 25 yearsof activity, whether there’s anything new coming up, besides touring and how do they manage to survive in today’s musical business. With many thanks to both Michaels for their time, I hope you enjoy the lecture of the chat I had with them.
Me: Welcome back to touring. Have you missed it?
MichaelR: Yeah. We had couple of years, everybody was doing their thing, lots of things happened so getting back together now is cool. We’re having fun
Me: What triggered it?
MichaelR: Just a lot of things, like I was working on my solo record
– small interruption by Russell Allen’s appearance who had to praise the dinner place and people made some jokes about that –
So THIS kind of stuff is why we decided to just come out on tour and not do a record yet
Me: You missed the nonsense of being on tour
MichaelR: Indeed, all the shenanigans and all the goofing around. It seemed cool to just get everybody back on the same page, start playing again, talk about a record down the road. This is more about playing and getting back out there.
Me: But besides this tour, has anything SymphonyX related happened during the break?
MichaelR: Not really. Russ was involved in that accident, he needed a little time to himself, LePond was working on his solo stuff, I worked on my solo stuff, everybody had their time to do what they needed to do. Spend with their families, or work on some different things. I think it worked out quite well as we probably needed a little break. And it makes it more exciting to getting back on tour and goofing around. Like I said, the touring was a good idea, instead of making a new album, we’re just playing and having a good time.
Me: How was the reception of the tour so far? I personally bought a ticket the moment they got released on sales
MichaelR: Thanks. Everything has been pretty good. Solid sales
MichaelL: Fans have been great, but it really feels good for us to be back together again, also to get the nice feedback from the fans. And having again this feeling of being a band together.
Me: Did you feel rusty when you got back to the songs?
MichaelL: I was rusty
MichaelR: I’m still rusty! I’m trying to play every evening, but I don’t know what the f* I’m doing. But it actually all comes back quite nicely. The first day we rehearsed I thought we were pretty good.
Me: What is the first song you rehearsed, do you remember?
MichaelL: I think it was Iconoclast.
MichaelR: And I remember it went down pretty well
Me: Has there been any rehearsing prior to this, as a group, or has everyone practised at home?
MichaelR: Yes, we figured out what kind of songs we wanted to do, we tried a couple of different things, put a setlist together…
Photo by Andrea Chirulescu
Me: Considering the break in the band’s activity and that there’s no new material, how did you end up picking the songs? Some people are happy with it, some are disappointed
MichaelR: You can’t make everyone happy. But we’re happy so we just wanted to do a little bit from every record. This isn’t really the Underworld tour, so we thought it’s ok to do some of the last record, but also do some earlier stuff. We talked about doing the Odyssey
Me: Yeah, I’m so looking forward to that. Are you really going to do all 20plus minutes of it?
MichaelR: Sure. Actually, by not having a record it was actually kinda cool. We didn’t have to stick to songs from the last record, we had freedom to pick and so we tried to pick something from everywhere.
Me: When you go back to the older songs, after so long time, do you feel like you have to change them or you end up staying true to how they were made back then?
MichaelR: I would say stay true to it. There’s some little things you might throw it, but we don’t really change much.
Me: About Odyssey, when you rehearse it, do you spend 25 minutes and play down the song each time?
MichaelL: Yes, we played the set through, take a little break, and then, just like for an encore, we go back in and get through the song. But to us it doesn’t feel long. We’re playing the parts, concentrating, and then before you know it, it’s the end of the song and it’s not too bad.
MichaelR: Indeed, it goes by quick and it just flows.
Me: I guess everybody is wondering, is there’s anything new already in the making?
MichaelR: Now we have this tour, then a South American leg at the beginning of August. And we’re gonna just talk about what we’re gonna do, make some plans.
Me: So everyone wants to continue
MichaelR: Definitely. We just have to figure out a schedule and it’s something we talk about. We have no idea how it will go, we’re only at the talking phase right now.
Me: There’s actually 25 years of Symphony X according to the information out there…
MichaelR: I’m getting old man
Me: You didn’t realise it?
MichaelR: Not until you just mentioned it. It’s been a long time indeed, but we’re having a good time and we’re ready to rock. We don’t think about that, we think about what we gotta do right now.
Me: When you have started, was it a thought to do this for 30-40 years or was it more like a home garage kinda thing?
MichaelR: We all knew we wanted to do it, but 30 years, I’ve never really thought about that far. But it worked out good. I think all of us wanted to be in a band, try to survive and have a good time
MichaelL: I wanted to be like Gene Simmons
Me: Hehe. Did you get close?
MichaelL: Not THAT close, no
Photo by Andrea Chirulescu
Me: Most of you guys are multiinstrumentalists. Is that a burden sometimes in the composing process? Do people step on someone else’s toes and try to interfere with the instruments they play, just because he has knowledge on that instrument?
MichaelR: I don’t think anyone of us can do what the other guy can do as good as the other guy. I can play a little piano, but I can’t play like him, or I can play a little bass but not like him.
Me: So everyone knows their limits. I’m also wondering, what is the secret of you guys having managed to have a rather constant lineup more or less since the beginning? Is it the shenanigans?
MichaelR: Hmm, what is the secret…
MichaelL: I think you need people who are willing to talk about things together, since it’s all like a family. Just like in any family, sometimes there’s problems, you have good times, bad times but you have to maintain that bond the whole time through. We respect each other, and we have that bond. If there’s any problem at all, we find a way to get pass it.
MichaelR: Or we just say ‘Go f* yourself!’. There’s the other way as well. But we never really say it.
Me: I can imagine that when you’re cramped in a tourbus for weeks, it’s quite important to keep that bond
MichaelL: It’s quite important. It’s also quite smelly
Me: I’m wondering about one things, when it comes to the concept albums that you have released so far. They have themes, like Atlantis on V for example. Are you guys ‘geeks’ in the sense that these are usual subjects that you sit down and talk about?
MichaelR: Are we geeks? I don’t think we’re geeks? I think it’s more the music that leads to that stuff. For me, anyway. I see the music as being something more grandiose or something more epic, so then you have to think of what lyrically would make sense. And usually it’s things like the Odyssey. But we all have different interests, some might like history, I like dark stuff, he might like mythology. And out of these topics we come out with something. We don’t geek out, I hope. But we do our research cause we want our music to mean something. Yet, for the stuff that we do, this kind of things are more representative
Me: I am pretty sure you agree you don’t make the most common kind of music, so you’re pretty much on the geeky side of things.
MichaelR: Exactly. Still, we’re not going to write a 20 minutes song about sitting on a park bench and feeding ducks.
MichaelL: Or spending the summer and trying to meet chicks on a Saturday night.
Me: Retrospectively, looking at the fact that you have your own studio, is it a good or a bad thing?
MichaelR: For me, it’s easy because I am there, I can get up, get my coffee and just start working. I don’t have to worry about if the door is locked, what time the studio opens, how much money do we spend that day.
Me: Does it make you lazy having such a luxury?
MichaelR: Am I lazy?
MichaelL: When he is in the zone to write, when he says to us ‘I’m gonna write’, he’ll literally be down there at least 12 to 14 hours every single day, 7 days a week. I don’t know how he does it, he’s just obsessed, but he just does it.
MichaelR: Yes, I want it to be good. So from my angle, it’s a positive thing. My family is there, I might take a break, hang out with the kids. There’s also a lot of room, the guys in the band can come down, we hang out, there’s no worries that we have to get it done by 5 when the studio is gonna close. We’re done when we’re done, be it 7 in the morning, or whatever it takes.
Me: But when do you know when to stop?
MichaelL: That’s the ultimate question. When does the artist walk away?
Me: Well, in another context, you have the limitations of money or another person who tells you ‘ok, this should do, you’re done here’. You don’t have that.
MichaelR: I think earlier on, this might have been an issue, but after doing it for so long, I know when it’s a good time to stop so you don’t f* with it. But that’s true, it is tough to know when to let it go.
MichaelL: There’s always something you could fix.
MichaelR: But after so many years, we all kinda know now ‘That’s a good take, that’s the one’.
Photo by Andrea Chirulescu
Me: How has your music taste changed/evolved lately and how has it influenced the way you write your own music?
MichaelL: I always try to listen to new stuff that’s out there
MichaelR: But I also think all of us still like the stuff that we grew up with. For me there’s stuff like Priest, Sabbath, Maiden, Ozzy, Rush, Kansas, all those bands. That’s how I learned. And over the years, I started listening to a lot of classical music, now I listen to a lot of film music, I was into jazz for a while and I think over the years you kinda try to integrate that in what you do but for me it seems that it always falls back on to the stuff that got me into it in the first place. Like on Underworld, there’s riffs in there and I know I got them from stuff like Priest, or Pantera. Maybe something comes from Star Wars for example, there’s always something different, but in the end we’re close to the stuff that we grew up with. Yet, we’re open enough to listen to new things and try to incorporate them a little bit.
Me: I guess you get a lot of people saying that you influence their style
MichaelR: That’s great, that’s how it should keep going. I think that’s fantastic.
Me: Do you offer any classes?
MichaelR: When I was young I used to teach. I kinda liked it but now I like writing. I might be doing it again, I don’t know.
MichaelL: I do it a little bit, but I’m not a big fan of teaching myself.
Me: May I ask if you’re actually at the level of making money out of your music or you need to have a normal job on the side to support you?
MichaelL: I can’t see how anybody can do music for a living nowadays, with the streaming and all that
MichaelR: We used to do ok. Now we’re kinda getting back, but it was a gradual less and less money. I noticed it around 2008 maybe, when we started to really see less of royalties coming in and the streaming became more popular. We were able to survive. Now it’s way harder, so much harder.
MichaelL: The streaming companies and people not buying music anymore, only ‘stealing’ it, has cut our sales in half if not more.
MichaelR: It’s a different way now for the business structure. Even if we work with such a big label. I personally always buy albums from the bands that I like. I’ll buy a CD, a vinyl if I can. Because I know that band it’s gonna get maybe like 2 dollars. If I go on Spotify, they’re gonna get something like .0006 cents. I would gladly give my money to a band that I like, but being a musician I know how to actually help them. I don’t think a lot of people actually understand this streaming thing. It is convenient, it is great to have everything at your fingertips. I got it too. But it’s the way it is. And yes, we’re all trying to do other things with music, and then you end up with this dangerous aspect when everybody tries to do too many things just to survive and then you lose what’s special about the one thing you had. Everything starts to get diluted when people have to start doing a million other things just to pay their bills.
Me: Glad you guys didn’t give up and now you’re here.
MichaelR: Yes, we’re here and we’ll keep doing it, but being around for so long we now how it goes and how it is a little tougher now. But I kinda feel bad for the younger bands starting now…
MichaelL: It’s this big salad, with great bands and not so great bands, out there on the internet, no one knows how to break out nor how to handle it. I don’t think many people know how to get out of this situation.
MichaelR: We got to see better years, but it’s still good now, just that we have to do other things like solo records and I’m trying to do some works with film and TV or other bands in the studio. I’m still involved in music, and I think everyone is trying to do something music related and of course, it would be great to just have the band 100% to concentrate on and everybody be able to survive from that. But it’s not the way it is, but as long as we do music related stuff, we are able to pay bills and also have fun, that’s the way it’s going.
Me: You have 5 more years to do so, until you reach 30 years of Symphony X
Full concert gallery https://www.eternal-terror.com/gallery/view.php?id=3750
Photo by Andrea Chirulescu