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Progressive Rock Interviews

Mars Hollow

Interviewed by Grant Hill

Interview with Mars Hollow from 2011

MSJ:

Kerry, you deliver a great distinctive sound out of that southpaw Rickenbacker. How did you settle on the Rick with so many current options for bassists out there?

Kerry Chicoine: This is kind of crazy. In the early days I used to de-tune my guitars to use as “bass” on my home demos; then in the late ‘80s I graduated to a “Seinfeld” type of synth bass once I got a Roland sampler. I didn’t start playing real bass until around 1996 when my next-door neighbor, Todd Montgomery of the Los Angeles band, Rat Bat Blue, said, “I’ve got a lefty Rick you can use for your demos.” I wasn’t even in bands at this point. I used it for a couple of years strictly for recording, then in 1999 I “came out” as a musician and formed a power pop band called “Receiver,” and the lefty Rick made its debut. I’ve been playing it ever since. Todd eventually moved to Las Vegas and told me, “Keep the bass. You’re using it more than I ever would.” Todd, if you’re reading this, thank you, bro! The Rickenbacker is the only bass I’ve ever played, although I have a backup, an Ibanez Roadstar. The ‘star is cool but I’ve come to love the Rick; it’s the only bass for me.
MSJ: Tell us about your musical roots.
Kerry Chicoine: My roots stem – get it? – from the Beatles, first and foremost. I never considered prog to be anything more than what the Beatles would’ve been doing had they stayed together. As I grew into my teenage stoner years, ELP and Rush really captivated my imagination. In my twenties I was into the metal of the day, Racer X, Ratt, Van Halen, and smooth jazz in the eighties, seriously! My thirties were dedicated to progressive pop like Todd Rundgren, XTC and Mike Keneally. These days, anything I like becomes a part of my ever spreading root system; eventually, the tree’s gonna topple and crush the house!

John Baker: As a kid, my first fascination was with the sound of a distorted electric guitar. I didn’t know how that sound was made. It took me a long time to discover how that was achieved and it happened by accident. My roots aren’t as blues based as some rockers, but I did a lot of jamming on that structure when I was in my teens. 

Jerry Beller: As for me, my dad was a Los Angeles studio musician. Before that, he was in some of the most famous big bands, like Tommy Dorsey and Artie Shaw. My uncle was Ben Pollack, the man who invented the high-hat and brushes. I started to play drums at the age of five. One of my dad’s best friends was Nelson Riddle. He gave me my first drum set! I also took classical piano lessons for about five years. That was per my dad’s suggestion as that is from where all arrangements tend to emerge. That gave me a bigger picture of music instead of just being a timekeeper. I listen to all parts before coming up with my own.

Steve Mauk: I grew up with parents who loved classical music. My Mother loved Bach, in particular. My Father loved the Russian composers, especially Tchaikovsky. Classical music and popular Broadway musicals were always playing around the house when I was a kid. My grandmother was a piano teacher by profession and taught my brothers, sister and me to play.

MSJ: Who were your biggest influences, musically, in your approach to writing and playing?
Kerry Chicoine: Gosh, so many, as mentioned above. The primary influences have come from that flowing river of imagination known as Mike Keneally, and also from the intelligently heartfelt music of Andy Partridge and XTC. Throw in some Kevin Gilbert and Jason Falkner, mix in a little Keith Emerson, and that’s pretty much the spring from which the waters flow. Also, the mindsets of Miles Davis and Anita O’Day with that whole “f*** you” approach is also very appealing. Miles Davis’ “never look back” approach is way cool, although I’m not capable of being quite like that, myself.

John Baker: The two people I always credit for the primal influences are Glen Campbell and John McLaughlin. They both have great, curious musical brains.

Jerry Beller: As far as musical influences are concerned, I started listening to the Beatles. Then, after that, I loved Cream and Hendrix. Then finally it was Yes, ELP, JethroTull, Genesis, Rush, Kansas and so on.

Steve Mauk: Probably Emerson Lake and Palmer as well as Genesis; I listened to their albums a lot! I fantasized a lot about being Keith Emerson!

MSJ: What were the performance opportunities that eventually led to the formation of Mars Hollow?
Kerry Chicoine: I guess it was 2005 or thereabouts when I saw a post from Ryo Okumoto on the Spock’s Beard board. He was seeking a bassist and vocalist for his solo project, Code Red. The post was a few months old but I responded anyway. To my surprise, Ryo called me immediately and said, “Come over now; we jam, mofo!” So, we hooked up and I miraculously scored the gig. Ryo’s son, Sage, was originally playing drums but he opted out, so Ryo asked me to find a drummer. I placed an ad and Jerry Beller responded. We auditioned him and he was perfect for the job, so Ryo asked him to be on board. We played and rehearsed for a couple of years as Code Red before Ryo got too busy to carry things forward. Jerry and I stayed in touch and Jerry eventually pulled Mars Hollow together. 

John Baker: After a lot of my own pop projects, I was looking for an opportunity to play some fancy guitar again. I answered a “prog guitarist wanted” ad that Jerry Beller placed on a music site. When Jerry and I first met, I mentioned I wanted to sneak in a bit of pop accessibility, mostly by way of the vocals. 

Jerry Beller: Picking up on what Kerry said, after Ryo’s Code Red, I caught the progressive bug again after not doing any prog projects for quite a while. So, I called up Kerry and asked him if he would be interested if I got a band together. He said he would, so I placed some ads. First we got Steve Mauk, and the three of us started writing together. Those sessions were our “Eureka” moment. Then, John Baker answered the call and the magic of playing together really caught on between us. We all work very well together, and the first group of songs were formed. We did demos that got great responses, so we moved on to the recording of our first CD, and so the journey began. 

Steve Mauk: I had few performance opportunities, really. I answered Jerry’s ad in the "Music Connection.” I had recorded a little demo of my playing and writing that I brought over to his house and played for him. The guys liked it, and so I jumped aboard.

MSJ: Tell us more about your impressions of each other and the characteristics that allow you to play as a band.
Kerry Chicoine: Jerry Beller is the percussive engine. I think that 99% of the energy that the band projects starts from Jerry’s intense approach to the drums. He also comes up with plenty of cool musical ideas, which is great. John Baker and Steve Mauk supply the bulk of the musical ideas that eventually become Mars Hollow music. John also writes the lion’s share of the lyrics and his vocal style has become a trademark of our sound.

Steve brings a calm energy to the proceedings and then fools you by ripping into a blazing solo. My primary role is to write the music that holds John’s and Steve’s ideas together, endings, turnarounds, bridges, whatever it takes. I love it because I get to do all the fun stuff! Plus, John and Steve have fantastic ideas and I’m very grateful to have such great material to work with. Of course, sometimes one of us will bring in something pretty much fully formed. Then we all try to put our stamp on it. There is no set approach.

John Baker: The biggest assets of my fellow bandmates are their generosity and tolerance, especially when it comes to ego and musical taste disagreements. We have our differences but we work them out. This is our greatest team asset. These guys have been extremely generous and gracious to me. 

Jerry Beller: Each of us have a love for progressive music, but also have influences in pop, metal, alternative, classical and whatever else one can come up with. Any one of us may come up with something to bring to the table, someone else will add to it, and then all of a sudden the room becomes electric with ideas to add to those. So, we write as a band. Yes, there are a few songs that were written by one person, but 95% of the songs are band written. That’s what makes the characteristics of the band so great. The ideas come from all of us. So, he writing does not become stale and there are new ideas brewing all of the time. 

Steve Mauk: It’s amazing to me how well we all get together as bandmates and friends. I think we respect each others playing ability and that helps nurture the bond. We enjoy both playing and hanging out with each other. There is lots of laughing when we are together, and we seem to always crack each other up!

MSJ: I had a wonderful time familiarizing myself with the music of Mars Hollow on the self-titled release. World In Front Of Me was even more fun, probably because I like the music so much. Tell us about the conceptualization and creation of the CD.
Kerry Chicoine: Truth be told, we started writing material even before we finished our first album, with no real concept or plan in place. As the songs revealed themselves, the album just kind of came together of its own accord. As we listened to the demos, we started putting two and two together. An arc, or a storyline, started to materialize. We sequenced the songs in what felt like was a natural order. For whatever reason, all the elements, music and lyrics, seemed to come together. We had a couple of other songs partially written, but they didn’t seem to fit this particular album. We’re working on those songs for the next record.

Steve Mauk: Some of the material came from parts I had written years ago, some from parts written recently. Each of us would bring our parts to rehearsal and like a giant musical puzzle, try to figure out how it could all fit together. 

John Baker: Even though there was no overall concept at first, as the songs were sequenced in a particular order, a theme emerged. Each song was written without this connection in mind, so it seems serendipitous. As for the difference from the first album to the second, we just got to know our tendencies a bit better as we developed. At some point, we may try and forget tendencies in the hope of truer innovation! 

Jerry Beller: This CD really was in the creation process right after we finished the first release. The first song that we wrote for this album was the title cut. We already had a lot of parts written for it, so we finished that up and moved onto “Walk on Alone,” which is the first song where we actually used a whiteboard. We had a lot of parts for this song, so we used the board to determine which ones worked best together in progression. Then we started on “What Have I Done,” which is John's song. But, Mars Hollow arranged that as a band. “Voices” and “Weapon” are band arrangements. “Mind Over Matter” is a piece John also brought to the table, and we arranged that as Mars Hollow, too.  So, even if someone brings in most of a full song, we do help in the arrangement and add ideas that make it a band project.

MSJ: How did Billy Sherwood enter the picture, and what was the process of his production technique like to experience?
Kerry Chicoine:  Even before the first album was released, before we were signed, I’d been in contact with Billy via MySpace. He expressed interest in working together. We set a date, November of 2010, and before we knew it we were at his studio, plugged in and recording. Billy was fantastic to work with, easy going and open minded. But, he’s still strong on ideas he believes in passionately. Billy had a hand in many respects, from suggesting keyboard patches, to helping me refine bass ideas, and to suggesting input on everything from drums to guitars. His expertise made recording the album a breeze. Virtually every song is a first take with regard to drums and bass.  We did literally a handful of minor tweaks at post production time, and we recorded the basic tracks over five weeknights. The band did vocal and solo overdubs at John Baker’s studio, then we turned it all over to Billy for mixing. I think we asked Billy to make all of three mixing changes. The album took less than six months from first recording session to holding the final CD in our hands. We felt we made great use of technology to speed the process along instead of becoming mired in details, as can often happen.

John Baker: When we then talked about a budget, he still said, “yes!” Along the way, we were sometimes frightened by his methods and vision, but were able to discuss our concerns with him. There was a bit of give and take here and there, but very quickly we had something we were all proud of. We learned something.

Jerry Beller: When we met Billy, we became friends right off the bat. It’s nice having a producer who is your friend. He works fast and knows when a take is good even though you may think that you need to do another. He pays so much attention to what you are doing that he knows when the correct take is golden. For example, all of the drum tracks were good on the first take. He just knew he was right. The energy that came out the tracks were great, and when everything came together in the final mix it was great, too. We delivered that polished power sound, cannon drums, so to speak.

Steve Mauk: He was very easy to work with. As the guys said, Billy works really fast, so the challenge for me was to keep up with his suggestions and how quickly he pressed the record button!

MSJ: It seems like you’re getting some press and gig opportunities. How do you consolidate your arrival on the scene, and what do you now do to push the envelope even further?
Kerry Chicoine: We’ve been so, so lucky to score awesome gigs like RoSFest, ProgDay and Mexicali Prog. We are proving to the public that we’re capable of delivering a live set and competing with the best the genre has to offer. We’re constantly on the prowl for gig and festival opportunities, but sometimes it just doesn’t happen for whatever reason. It’s sad because we love playing live. It’s where we really come together as a band. With the current economic climate, coupled with the music industry experiencing yet another decade of turmoil, opportunities are drying up. That leaves us to playing local gigs whenever we get the itch. All of the reviews, interviews and press are very gratifying. They definitely help spread the word, but without opportunities to play more places to bigger crowds, we’re destined to remain mired in relative obscurity. We are ready, willing and able to play anywhere, anytime, as long as basic needs like travel, backline and lodging are met. Even the basics are a big expense these days and fewer promoters are willing to financially extend themselves to that extent anymore. Can anyone blame them? As to how to push the exposure envelope even further, a tour opening for Lady Gaga would be a great start! But seriously, we’re hoping a veteran prog act will take us under their wing and put us on tour with them, but that’s looking less and less likely these days. Honestly, I think the only thing we can do is keep writing the best songs we can. 

John Baker: We have to start being more creative in our methods for raising the popularity bar. Just what those methods will be, I don’t yet know. What we do know is that everything we have now is based almost entirely on just one record. Honestly, I don’t really know how or why that happened, but we are very grateful. 

Jerry Beller: Yes, the press has been good and the gig opportunities are coming. I also think that people who are tied to this type of music need to get together, support one another, and spread the word. I think more fans would emerge if the bands work together to get more ears tuned into prog. That would give all the bands from this style of music more gig opportunities. We will continue to do what we are doing. So far it's working, but the next step is management since we have been doing this on our own. It's just been our own efforts, 10T Records, the agent and our production team.

Steve Mauk:  I say just focus on writing the very best material we can and perform it with precision and enthusiasm! The rest can eventually take care of itself.

MSJ: What are you listening to lately that you find enjoyable or inspirational?
Kerry Chicoine: Mike Keneally’s new live set, bakin’ @ the potato!, is killer. Also, I’ve been digging our 10T Records label-mates, TCP, with their new album, Fantastic Dreamer. It’s great stuff.

John Baker: I’ve been listening to lots of YouTube clips of jazz fusion artists, some new, some old. Check out Barbara Dennerlein. She is on another planet! Her main instrument is the Hammond B3, played in a fusion setting. There was no bass player in the clip I viewed, and when I saw her play the bass pedals, I cried. That kind of thing is most inspiring to me. 

Jerry Beller: Transatlantic and Spock’s Beard, but I also listen to a lot of old school prog like JethroTull, ELP, Yes, Rush, Frank Zappa, and so on. So, new or old, if it is good I will listen!

Steve Mauk: Most recently I've been listening to Phideaux, Aural Moon, streaming internet prog radio, Kaipa, and the soundtrack to Bat Boy.

MSJ: What are your thoughts on the industry as it stands, and what would you like to see happen to get progressive music into the public’s ears on a much larger scale?
Kerry Chicoine: The industry is a big pile of smoldering wreckage at this point, specifically for new prog or otherwise experimental bands. There’s simply no money anymore. There are many reasons why, but the money is gone, gone, gone. Only a few bands currently benefit from major label dollars and that’s a big part of what it takes to get known these days. Also, the general public’s taste and discrimination levels have dwindled to the point where now you have stuff like Rebecca Black’s “Friday” making waves, even for just being plain terrible. As goofy as her song and video are, it’s still an insult to anyone with discriminating tastes in music. Whatever happened to the masses of people who prided themselves on their musical tastes? Would Steely Dan be able to survive in this day and age if they were just starting out? It’s a f***ing joke; there are so few of us left, it seems. And yet there are tons and tons, too many, perhaps, of talented bands out there wallowing in obscurity. It’s hard for even those with great tastes in music to take the time to discover. As for the public embracing prog on a larger scale, I just don’t think it’s reasonable. Tastes have dwindled to the point where a drum machine and a whiney vocal are what the majority of people seemingly want to hear. I say let them have it. Progressive rock is thriving among the hardcore fans, and that’s all that matters. And there are plenty of hardcore fans of all ages, please believe, and it’s growing, however slowly. I have great hope for the future of this music because there will always be people wanting to have their limitations broken and musicians wanting to write their own rules.

John Baker: I got nowhere in the old model of the music business, so I don’t really care that it changed. Sure, I’d like to see prog become more mainstream, but I’m not holding my breath. I’ve heard a lot of great innovative music coming from new young people and I think that given time, the problem of bringing innovation to the surface will take care of itself. That’s exactly how communism fell! 

Jerry Beller: I would like to see more promotion from the press, bigger magazines, television, and the big record companies. I think that there are still a lot of people who think this music went away in the 1970s. But, it has always been here. There is a great wave of new music and lots of new bands out there. It’s just that more people need to know about it. I think if more people knew about this, they would know that there are different flavors of music out there instead of what is saturated in the popular media.

Steve Mauk: I wish people would respect musicians’ rights to make some kind of revenue from their efforts, and choose to actually buy music as opposed to downloading it for free. I often wonder if new progressive music will become accepted more by the mainstream. I guess time will tell.

MSJ: And, finally, ask yourself a question of your own choice and answer it.
John Baker: What is the single most important component you’d like to see change in popular music? Well, I’d like to have more introspection in popular music. That would be the most important catalyst for changing the landscape in ways that I would consider favorable. On the other hand, I sometimes want to hear stuff that says just the opposite.

Jerry Beller: Jerry, what took you so long to form a prog band? It finally came at the right time with the right people.

Steve Mauk: What is the fastest land animal? The Cheetah.

Kerry Chicoine: What is your favorite food? Blonde.

MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2011  Volume 4 at lulu.com/strangesound.
 
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