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Progressive Rock Interviews

Aethellis

Interviewed by Gary Hill
Interview with Ellsworth Hall of Aethellis From 2009
MSJ: Can you give our readers a look at the history of your group and your involvement in music?
As a kid I loved classical music (thanks to my dad's influence) and would "conduct" to symphony records. I also listened to a local jazz show on the radio in Baltimore, "The Harley Show". I loved the music which evoked the downtown nightlife in my little 3 year old mind! I was classically trained on piano starting at age 6, took cello lessons at age 11, guitar at 15 and finally voice at 28 (to save it from abuse!). There were several turning points in my life that guided me down the music path.

My first one was in second grade. I'd been taking piano lessons for two years and was learning some boogie woogie pieces. In music class at school, the teacher was aware I was taking lessons and asked me to play piano for the class. So I played a few boogie woogie tunes I'd learned and the kids ate it up. All the girls were gushing all over me and I loved it! I then realized that performing music could make me popular with girls!

Two years later I had been composing tunes and wrote one named after my dog. Again in a different school I was asked in music class to come up and play. So I played my original tune which had a rather chromatic bassline and lots of energy. Some kids expecting a namby-pamby little ditty named after my dog got the 4th-grade equivalent of "Tarkus" and went bonkers. I then realized that music that I had composed myself could really affect people. I was sure to always include an original piece in all my piano recitals thereafter; many named after my dog with various "sequel" titles.

12th grade - my high school's "Senior Follies," basically a talent show in the big auditorium in the evening. [The] Place is packed. I'd been teaching myself Elton John songs by singing and playing along to them (I'd just begun singing that year). This was around the peak of EJ's popularity (1975). I perform "Bennie and the Jets" wearing a suit, orange cap with a huge purple feather and blue octagonal glasses. [The] Crowd loved it and were clapping along. I still have this on audio tape. I learned I could not only play but also sing and affect people.

In college as a film/video major, my advisor was the legendary experimental filmmaker Stan VanDerBeek who really inspired me to be involved in film/video production professionally (I'd been making films since I was 13). This would lead to my career in video production and soundtrack work.

1994 - I'd been doing soundtrack music for local cable stations, local filmmakers and the like and not very sure of my ability in terms of making an impact nationally. On a whim I submitted a demo to multimedia composer Rob Wallace after seeing articles on him in Keyboard and Electronic Musician where he was looking to subcontract work. A month later he calls me on the phone telling me how much he enjoyed my music and wanted me to join his team. I was shocked! But it was a great boon to my self esteem as a composer.

I met most of my current band mates in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It was a series of connections from a friend in high school. We played in the bands Affinity and Logos with some cross-pollination of the members over the years. We played out quite regularly and had our original music on local radio and available on cassette. Guitarist Mark Van Natta and I formed a music library company in the late 80s, Affinity Music Library. We also did custom music for various video, film and computer game producers.

By the mid ‘90s we changed the band name to Logos Affinity as there were several groups named Affinity that we discovered on the Internet. We recorded a band album on CD in 1998, Affini Logue which was a mix of folk, fusion and progressive rock - kinda odd looking back on it. We started working on the follow up album in 2001 but there was some resistance, mostly unconscious I think, to getting things moving. I became frustrated and decided to take the tunes I'd written for the album and go off and do my own solo project. That became the Aethellis album.
MSJ: Where does the name Aethellis come from? Is there some significance to it?
I was looking for a band name to use for my solo project in case I decided to gig the music and perhaps follow up with other members on the next album - something that evoked the English vibe where so much progressive rock had its origins. I came across a book on the etymology of names. I found that my first name (Ellsworth) in Olde English had been "Aethellis-worth," meaning "owner of a noble estate." I liked the sound of "Aethellis" and decided it would make a great proggy-type band name. It also lent itself to the historical aspect of many of the lyrics like "Saint Augustus" (based on the life of the Bishop of Hippo in western North Africa). 
MSJ: If you weren't involved in music, what do you think you'd be doing?
I'd be doing film/video production full-time most likely. I took a drawing course when I was a kid and was constantly with a pencil or pen in my hand! So I became a visual arts major in college, focusing on film/video production. I've always loved comic books, drawing and painting. I love the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists and Fauves the most. I've been working on a feature video production, Beside The Manor Selby that I've written, directed and scored. I painted a portrait which will be the cover of the soundtrack album. 
MSJ: How would you describe the sound of Aethellis? 
I think some of the reviews I've read have nailed it. One of my favorites was "the album Tony Banks should have made after A Curious Feeling!" But yes, this first album is very Tony Banks influenced as he is one of my very favorite composers and keyboardists. But I would agree that there's a bit of UK, Rick Wakeman, Camel and Alan Parsons in there. With a bit of funk and jazz too as I love those kinds of rhythms and chords. I was a bit conservative with my vocal performance; perhaps relying a bit too much on effects to make things smooth. For the next album, I'll be belting it out a bit more; make it more raw, more powerful. The music will also be a bit different; somewhat more frenetic and dissonant in places. But calm and serene in other areas!
MSJ: What’s ahead for you? 
I'm working on finishing up Beside The Manor Selby and then will work on the soundtrack album and get both into distribution. I also hope to have a video of "Saint Augustus" done by year's end. At the beginning of 2010 I'll focus on finishing up the next Aethellis album, entitled Northumbria. On the production and soundtrack front, I'll most likely be working on the Bait and Switch TV show in 2010 as we just finished the pilot up this year for Stanion Productions to be shown on cable. I'm the composer and sound designer although I did some voice-overs and animated graphics for it as well.
MSJ: Are there musicians you’d like to play with in the future?
I'm pretty content playing with the guys I've known for 27 - 32 years although I'm always up for meeting new musicians and having a jam. I've played with a lot of great talents over the years and it's always a pleasure. But hey if Eddie Jobson asked me to fill in on a UKZ tour I'd be honored - terrified, but honored!
MSJ: Do you think that downloading of music is a help or hindrance to the careers of musicians? It’s been said by the major labels that it’s essentially the heart of all the problems they are having in terms of lower sales – would you agree? 
I do think it's had an impact; but just addressing the legal downloads; yes that has had a huge impact on the industry as witness iTunes and Rhapsody. The distribution method is where a lot of folks made their money and that disappeared with the Internet. But it appears that the legal downloading aspect is working itself out.

As for downloading songs without paying for them, it's a double edged sword where it gets unknown bands exposure but at the same time removes the financial benefits. Not that musicians have always made out well with standard contracts in the old days. It's a complex issue with many facets. I do think there is a huge amount of material online competing for attention and a huge number of bands out there competing for venues at which to perform. It makes it more difficult in some ways to be heard. That said, there's some amazing talent I've discovered by becoming "friends" with bands on MySpace.
MSJ: In a related question how do you feel about fans recording shows and trading them? 
I suppose as a copyright owner of the songs being performed I'd have some issues with the distribution of my material without my consent. Of course The Grateful Dead encouraged taping and recording as they made most of their revenue from touring, not their recordings - at least as I understand it. But if your main source of income from your music is selling CDs or online and you only play out occasionally to promote the music, that would be a problem.
MSJ: If you were a superhero, what music person would be your arch-nemesis
and why?
That's a toughie! I don't begrudge any musician their success. I don't care for a lot of the current crop of indie rock, but if they connect with folks then fine; that's what music does - communicate. I may not care for what they have to say but someone does. I do like some Coldplay songs and they are simple songs but beautifully arranged in my opinion. That makes them stand out.

I think Chick Corea said it best, "A musician has to create, to explore, to play what feels good to him. All music has validity." Things I may have dismissed in my 20s I'm much more appreciative of now. I didn't like the hair bands in the late ‘80s, but hey they worked hard and had fans that enjoyed their music. More power to them. I think doing soundtrack music and jingles and such was key. Having to write something in a style I may not previously have cared for gave me a new appreciation.
MSJ: If you were to put together your ultimate band, who would be in it?
Another toughie - I would like to see Jimi Hendrix finally jam with ELP. I guess I wouldn't have much to play then, though! I guess I'd have a rotating membership so I could see Tony Banks and Keith Jarrett play off one another. Carmine Appice on drums with Steve Hackett on guitar and Mike Finnigan on Hammond organ. I don't know, too many great choices!
MSJ: If you were in charge of assembling a music festival and wanted it to be the ultimate one from your point of view, who would be playing? 
Hoo boy, another tough question - maybe have Miles Davis and the Beatles as headliners. I'd want Burt Bacharach in there though along with Chicago, America, Elton John, Yes, Genesis and the folks in my ultimate band as well. Again, too many to choose from. This may get some comments, but John Tesh performed one of the best concerts I've ever seen. So he'd be welcome!
MSJ: What was the last CD you bought, or what have you been listening to lately? 
I just recently bought two jazz albums, Jack McDuff's The Honeydripper, and Jimmy Smith's Finest Hour. I should add them to my festival too!
MSJ: What about the last concert you attended for your enjoyment? 
The last concert I attended was Yes here in Baltimore last Fall. Whoa, Benoit David sure does sound like Jon Anderson! Great to see the band really kickin' it and having Oliver Wakeman with them. Before that it was the amazing Thomas Dolby in Annapolis.
MSJ: Finally, are there any closing thoughts you’d like to get out there?
Just to say that there's a wealth of great music and great musicians out there. Explore and sample everything you can, don't limit yourself. You may not care for everything you hear but you'll always get something out of it. Within the experience of listening to it, absorbing it, meditating on it, the rewards are truly great.
MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2009  Volume 6 at lulu.com/strangesound.
You'll find extra content from this artist in the Music Street Journal members area.
 
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