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Progressive Rock Interviews

Six Elements

Interviewed by Larry Toering

Interview with Misha Shengaout of Six Elements from 2012

MSJ:

What compelled you to record the Kipling based idea, and how did it all come together?

Kipling’s “If-“ has been an inspiration for me ever since I first read it about thirty years ago, at the tender age of twelve. In just 32 short lines it captures the ideal of human character. Our ideals make us who we are, which is why I felt that this poem should be shouted from every rooftop.  When I was reading the poem about eight years ago, some music ideas starting coming up in my head. I wrote them down and left them alone. Couple years later my wife introduced me to the oriental philosophical concept of Five Elements which, as it turns out, no one has ever applied to music production. It occurred to me that by using that concept I will be able to create a cohesive collection of songs with one song feeding into another. That’s when I dug out my original ideas for “If-“ and started building an album around it. It was truly a school of hard knocks, considering my lack of experience in the field of music production.

MSJ: How did you meet up with Stanley Whitaker and the other musicians in the group?
The fate definitely had a hand in this one. I met Jeff McGahren in 2008 through his older brother Matt, who was the lawyer representing an opposite side in litigation. Ordinarily you don’t talk much to the lawyers on the opposite side, but we accidentally struck a conversation. He mentioned that he is a part time movie director, I replied that I am working on the album and need a guitar player, and he gave me Jeff’s number. Jeff was rather skeptical about someone “working on the album,” by his own admission expecting three chords and couple lines written on a napkin. He was converted when I showed up at his doorstep with the thick stack of sheet music for several songs fully scored for each instrument.

I found Dave DeMarco in September, 2010, after getting really frustrated with all the local bassists we had tried. Somehow I found myself at Dave DeMarco’s site. Six Elements was planned as a studio project, so geography was not an issue (he is based in Virginia). We got in touch, he recorded one track (“Nightmare”) and it totally blew me away. Then he introduced me to Marc Norgaard, and they took care of the rhythm section.

The vocalist search was another producer’s lesson from the school of hard knocks. Throughout summer 2010 I interviewed vocalists until I found a girl with an amazing alto. I thought, “I have my candidate,” scored all songs for her voice and proceeded with recording all the parts. Comes November, we start recording vocals and ten minutes into the session I realize that she is completely wrong for the material. I don’t know what I was thinking five months earlier when I first interviewed her, but you can imagine that sinking feeling in my stomach! I cancelled the recording sessions, sent Dave DeMarco an email asking if he knew anyone and then spent some time with Jeff going back to the songs and figuring out what kind of vocalist we would like. We decided that we wanted to have someone like Peter Gabriel and then I spent Thanksgiving and early December of 2010 on YouTube, plowing through the covers of “Solsbury Hill” and old Genesis staples with the performers ranging from Dave Matthew to some Italian guys who recorded their covers at home using cheap video camera while wearing boxers and T-shirts. One of the videos was of Stanley Whitaker singing “Carpet Crawlers” at some gig. I was blown away by the intensity of his singing and tried to get in touch with him, but didn’t get any response. Then I discovered that Dave DeMarco and Stan had played together in Oblivion Sun! When I called Dave and asked him about Stan, he just started laughing. As it turned out, he was just about to call me and tell me that he spent previous two weeks tracking just the vocalist I need, and his name is “Stanley Whitaker!” The work Stan has done with Happy the Man, Oblivion Sun and everything in-between has been much more avant-garde than our material, but he was taken in by the lyrics and the fact that someone was seeking him out for his vocals rather than his guitar playing.

MSJ: Where did the name for the group originate?
It comes from the concept of Five Elements in Chinese philosophy (Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water). This concept is widely used in acupuncture, feng shui and so on. My wife told me about this concept when she was getting her degree in acupuncture and then I applied it to music, matching each song to an element and then laying them out within the album in the natural order of elements to make them flow into each other seamlessly. I used Five Elements to show different aspects of album’s concept, which becomes the central “sixth” element. Hence the name – “Six Elements.”
MSJ:
Besides artists like Peter Gabriel and Genesis, who would you see as some of your musical influences?
My main influences come from Russian romantic composers -  Rachmaninoff,  Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky and so on. To a lesser degree - from the modern composers like Holst and Khachaturian. Pop music influences, other than Genesis and Peter Gabriel, include Beatles, Pink Floyd, ELO, Supertramp, Rick Wakeman.
MSJ: How would you describe the music of Six Elements?
It is a picture painted by both music and lyrics. Our songs are not only standalone pieces but also chapters in the larger narrative. I suppose it sounds like 70s because so many performers of that era were set on telling a story.
MSJ:
If you were to put together your ultimate band (a band you'd like to hear or catch live), who would it be and why?
There are many great musicians that I admire, but there is one band and one show that I wish I had seen. Back in 1987 I was a penniless student in Moscow. I had ten rubles to last a week when someone offered me a ticket for the Pink Floyd show in Moscow. The price – exactly what I had left, ten rubles. Pink Floyd coming to Moscow was more than just a concert – it was almost a religious experience showing how much times had changed. Unfortunately, I chose the stomach over the soul. I wish I could go back and make a different choice.
MSJ: Do you think illegal downloading is a help or a hindrance to the careers of musicians?
I think it is definitely a hindrance. Unfortunately there isn't much that can be done about it.
MSJ: In a related question, how do you feel about fans recording shows and trading them?
Actually, I think recording shows is a good idea. It familiarizes listeners with the artist, but replaces neither going to the concert nor studio recording.
MSJ: What was the last CD you bought, and/or what have you been listening to lately?

The last one was actually album by the progressive rock band Aethellis under the same title. I really liked their song “Saint Augustus.” Prior to that I bought Roger Hodgson’s Open the Door, Yo Yo Ma’s Yo Yo Ma plays Ennio Morricone (one genius playing the music of another genius), K2’s Black Garden, Kansas’ Somewhere to Elsewhere, Gabriela Montero’s Bach and Beyond (if you’ve  never heard her piece “Beyond Bach,” you may be in for a treat!)

MSJ: Have you read any good books lately?
Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark, Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon. None of them are recent, but I am not ashamed to say that the last one made me cry. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I read The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists by Neil Strauss. I think it is a must-read for every guy (and most girls!), no matter how strict your moral code is, in order to understand that being attractive to the opposite sex has nothing to do with your personal qualities.
MSJ: What about the last concert you attended for your enjoyment?

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Spano played Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Concerto.

MSJ: Do you have any musical “guilty pleasure?”
You had to ask this one! Well, I sometimes listen to ABBA – it makes me feel as if I am twelve years old again!
MSJ: What has been your biggest Spinal Tap moment?
You have to remember that while growing up I wasn’t exposed to the culture that the “Spinal Tap” is mocking. Up to mid-80s rock musicians in Soviet Union were penniless and constantly risked harassment from the authorities, so anyone playing it stood out without having to wear tight pants or long hair. Most of them were thinking people, who refused to abide by the herd mentality. That’s why “This Is Spinal Tap” doesn’t have a cult status for me. However if you insist on asking, I laughed hardest when the guitar player (was it Nigel?) bragged how his amp is louder than everyone else’s because it can go to eleven.
MSJ:
What lies ahead for you and Six Elements?
Hopefully – the next album. The material has been written, it’s just a matter of getting down and recording it. Jeff will do some vocals on it. He also wrote a great music for Frost’s “Road Not Taken,” which will be one of the central songs on the album.

In addition to the music I am also running a bi-monthly online magazine “All Things If” with the original stories, articles as well as the section devoted to translating Russian modern prose. It has been lots of fun – but lots of work, too. You can guess what has been the inspiration for this magazine!
MSJ:
Are there any closing thoughts you would like to get out there?
I would like to wish all the readers of the Music Street Journal to “dream - but not make dream your master.” We can never achieve more than our highest dreams, but unfortunately they often get buried under the daily rut of mundane existence. The greatest waste in the world is the difference between what we are and what we could become.
MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2012  Volume 5 at lulu.com/strangesound.
 
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