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The Syn

Interviewed by Jason Hillenburg

Interview with Steve Nardelli of the Syn from 2015

MSJ:

I want to thank you for taking the time to talk with me today. I greatly enjoyed the Live Rosfest release and your other work for quite some time, so this is a real honor. What went into the decision-making to release this particular show?

It was actually recorded in 2009, six years ago, when we played the Rosfest show as part of the Big Sky album tour. Rosfest was, in fact, the last show of that particular tour – we had to curtail it because I had been working on a development project in the U.K. that resulted from a government initiative to bring forward “eco-towns” across the country to create a “greener” structure. I put a consortium together with an architect friend of mine, one of the best in the world, and a district council allocated 1,000 acres for potential use. There were about 75 that came up before the government for consideration and, not to my altogether surprise because we had put a lot of work into it, I got the call during the Big Sky tour that said, “well, you better hurry back because your town has been selected and the government has approved a 20 million pound grant.” So, as you can imagine, it was six years… [laugh] six years before I could get back to it. Interestingly, when we played at Rosfest, Moon Safari from Sweden was on the bill with us. I had an idea for an album and thought, “Well, with their five part harmonies, these guys would be perfect for it.” So I contacted them after the festival and asked them if they’d be interested in working on an album with me and they said “Yes.” So I’ve spent intermittent time over the last six years going back and forth between the north of Sweden, up by the Arctic Circle, and recording. We demoed the songs initially and, while we haven’t had time to work on them constantly, we’ve had six years and the material has grown in a truly organic way. The album will be mixed, mastered, and completed in June/July and will come out later this year. So it seemed to me, because The Syn has been off the radar for the last six years, it would be a good idea to release the Rosfest album and add a couple of bonus features to it. The idea is that this album would be a marker in the ground about where we were in 2009 as a prelude to the brand new studio album coming out this year. To my happy surprise, it’s been very well received and we haven’t been forgotten. Universal has been so surprised by how well the album has sold thus far that they’re reissuing our entire back catalogue, so there’s stuff from that due to start appearing in June or July.
MSJ: I think the live album gives listeners an excellent representation of the band’s past, present, and future. I was wondering what sort of thought process goes into selecting a set list for live shows.
Well, we were touring the Big Sky album at the time, so we featured all of that, and added some tracks from our time in the 1960s. Choosing the set, therefore, was a relatively simple process, but the important thing was to get the running order right and I think we did that. It builds very nicely and really takes off around “King, Clowns, and Cardinals.”
MSJ:

I agree, I think it builds quite well. Another thing I wanted to remark on is how melody seems to be a defining value of The Syn’s music. I know songs present themselves in different ways to different people, but does melody form the foundation of everything you write?

Yes, you’re absolutely right, all of my songs are built around melodies, and then the lyric comes around. I’m very conscious about the lyrics and what they say. I spend a lot of time on them, but you’re right, the melody is key. Frances Dunnery’s incredibly melodic as well and, according to him, the reason for that [laughs] is that Roman Catholics are naturally more melodic than Protestants who are more dour and serious about their music. Even if you look at gifted harmony singers like Chris Squire from Yes and others, they were all choirboys. I think you hit the nail on the head with that one.
MSJ:

Absolutely. Melody and harmonies are what lingers in the popular consciousness. It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve realized how a lot of the music I love from England, the singers are products of choir singing in church. So [laughs] the Catholic Church is responsible for that!

I think that’s absolutely true. Certainly, in choral singing, it’s all about harmony and melody, that’s where it’s at and you’re right that every great song, even if it’s a long progressive piece, always comes back to a melodic center. That’s what made Yes so great, melody and harmony, plus Jon Anderson’s incredible voice.
MSJ: I’m fascinated with how older artists stay connected with songs they wrote, in some cases, four decades ago. Is it like someone else wrote those songs now, and is it hard to connect with a song like, for instance, “Flowerman” as anything else other than a performer?
That’s a good question. When it comes to “Flowerman,” I think I like it better now than when we first recorded it. It’s part of my history as a songwriter and it’s part of The Syn’s history. I look at it as part of a jigsaw – if you go back five decades to when it first came out, I was pleased, it did very well for The Syn, and I do still feel connected with it.
MSJ: When I was preparing for this interview, I thought about the old adage “may you live in interesting times” and it reminded me of the era you came of age in, the 1960s, and the music scene you emerged from. I’m not sure you spend time thinking about things in these terms, but when or how did you realize you’d been a part of something rather extraordinary?
To some extent, I think you realized it at the time that we were going through a revolution, not just in music, but in fashion as well and, if you like, the rise of the working class hero. We’re talking about the baby boomers here and until the 1960s, or when they turned eighteen or nineteen, young men would wear the same clothes their fathers wore. The whole thing about the sixties revolution was that it was a youthful revolution and that gave it an unique flavor even then, but of course, as time wears on, you look back and realize just how significant it was in terms of the whole youth culture. It’s certainly different today as music seems a lot less important than ever before and the music industry is wobbling all over the place, as you know. I know when I look back on The Syn’s history, certainly our defining moment [laughs] was the night we played with Jimi Hendrix. It was Hendrix’s English debut, and we walked on stage that night not really knowing who he was, he’d just turned up out of nowhere, and when we walked out on the stage of The Marquee and saw 1,400 people there in a venue that seated only 1,000 and, in the front row, it’s the four Beatles, literally two yards from me. There they were, my heroes. Everybody was there. Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, The Who, everybody had come to see this guy. So he came out there on stage and did a half hour set, he only had a half hours’ worth of numbers, but he blew everyone away in that amount of time, even Clapton, and I think that night changed the way rock guitar is played. It was pure luck that we were even there that night. But yeah, I think everyone looks back on their youth as a special time. It molds you and everyone associates with the songs of their era because they are the songs they love.
MSJ:

How has the performing and songwriting experience evolved for you over the years?

Well, despite the fact that there had been a long gap where I didn’t do any performing or studio recordings, I think I fell into it very easily. It didn’t bother me starting again, it was rather like riding a bike, but obviously, I think my performances have improved over time. I never felt very intimidated by it, but I had a lot of great musicians around me. That’s the secret for singers, by the way – surround yourself with great musicians! [laughs]
MSJ: After so many years away from recording and performing, is there any sense of lost time? Or is this sort of a “victory lap” for you?
I never had to go through the angst and pressure of being involved with the music industry. I have complete control of everything The Syn does, so we don’t answer to anyone, so there’s been no pressure from that side. There’s no pressure to sell tons of albums because no one really does that anymore, anyway. We’ve had distribution deals with big companies, but that’s a business relationship, we’re not reliant on them for money or anything like that. I think you’ve made a good point about why I seem so relaxed, it’s because I’ve escaped all of that pressure. A little of it is a feeling that now I’m going to do what I’m going to do, pick up where we left off, and in a little over a decade since we first got things back together, we’ve managed to put out a lot of releases and we’ve been very successful, in our own way. It’s been very well received, I’m proud of what we’ve done, and I’ve worked some excellent musicians over these years, as I did in the sixties. Another defining thing for me has been losing so many of those men I made music with then. I want to get down as much of my music as I can for as long as I can.
MSJ: I’m sure that the lack of pressure you describe has the resulting effect of freeing you up creatively.
Absolutely, we can be very selective about the songs we choose to record, we can take our time to make things the best we can and, if we don’t like it, do it again. When I work with musicians, I don’t put any pressure on them, either. I want their personality to be on the album. They are a big part of making any album and there’s never any “this is how it’s gotta be,” it’s just how things turn out. That’s my approach, I’m completely laid back about that. I’m not precious about those things. If you’re good enough to be on the album, then you’re good enough to have serious input into how it turns out.
MSJ: A lot of musicians and songwriters don’t really care much for labels, but when you see your name on the Internet or elsewhere, inevitably you see terms like “progressive rock pioneer” or similar things. Is that something you shrug off or maybe something you wear more proudly?
People like to create labels, don’t they? They’re all good labels though! [laughs] I don’t take any notice of any of it. This is my music. If you want to criticize it, you can. If you want to hate it, that’s fine. If you like it, that’s great. That’s nice too. I’m not precious about that either. In a way, it’s a sixties thing, you’re entitled to your opinion. The greatest compliment that anyone can pay to a musician is listening to their music. If someone listens to my album, I can’t ask for any more than that. There will always be criticism, but it’s all water under the bridge for me.
MSJ: Do you envision the band doing any touring in the near future?
Absolutely. We’re planning to tour the next album with Moon Safari, Trustworks, or at least showcase it in the US and, since the band hails from there, Sweden. Obviously, the UK as well, but we’ll see where we go from there in terms of a proper tour schedule. It’s certainly in the cards. We’ve been offered dates in Japan, for example.
MSJ:

For those who may not know, who’s in the band’s current lineup, or who do you envision playing live when the band takes the stage again?

I think it will be members of Moon Safari and some other supporting players.
MSJ: A final question. What music have you been listening to for pleasure lately?
I tend to gravitate towards more obscure music, but I like Big Big Train a lot actually, I like their sound. That’s another band I think I could work with. I also like The Killers which brings us back again to that melodic thing. They’ve been a bit quiet recently, but I think they’re an immense talent. They write songs, and that’s what it’s all about.
MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2015  Volume 4 at lulu.com/strangesound.
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