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Progressive Rock Interviews

Bruce Stringer

Interviewed by Jason Hillenburg
Interview with Bruce Stringer from 2015
MSJ:

For listeners and readers unfamiliar with you and your music, can you surmise the musical journey leading you to recording this album?

Well, some of the pieces go back to when I was living in Germany. Some of them go back to when I was eighteen and got my first analog synthesizer. I started playing guitar when I was twelve and started gigging by the time I was thirteen. By the time I was getting out of school, I was getting into analog synthesizers and, of course, this thing has always sort of been… I’m kind of the anti-guitarist. There are guitarists who listen to Steve Vai, Joe Satrani, and they’re great musicians, but what I wanted from music was a little different than that. Technique was very important, so I grew up listening to Rush, Yes, and other prog bands, but when it came to sound, I appreciated things that were completely different like Tim Blake or Hawkwind. When it came to doing this sort of music, it’s a response to… to be quite honest with you, I’ve haven’t bought a lot of music in the last ten years because I’m just really disappointed with what’s available. I think to myself that maybe there’s no market for an instrumental album, but I wanted to do something that I would listen to. Another thing to bear in mind is that while I was recording ten tracks for this album, I actually recorded 25 and pared it down for the release. There’s a lot more material, and I’ve had years and years of working with other musicians, being a session player for a while, so there’s lots of little ideas in a back catalog, so when I’m working on something, I can pull from that. That’s how it came about – a mix of I’m not your usual guitar player, because I'm not a technician in that respect, and because I'm into analog synthesizers and other things.
MSJ: You touched on this in your answer, but can you explain how you arrived on a final running order for this album? Before you answer, however, I'd like to say that I think the outlines of its design start emerging after a few listens, but I really wanted to hear your thoughts about the sequencing.
This is a really weird one because I've already had a few people say the same thing. The sequencing was pretty deliberate, but in a way, it wasn't. If we go back and listen to something like Ravi Shankar albums, there are particular ragas used for morning and ragas used for evening. So I wanted it to feel like an album, with Side One and Side Two, with a first half meant to sound more aggressive and, I guess, powerful while the second side is more of an evening thing that mellows out a bit. That's how it came out, but it also came out that way because I wanted to program it for 24 minutes on one side and 24 on the second. The other thing was that the remaining fifteen tracks that didn't make it onto the album also had their place, but when they didn't anymore, I just had to pull them.
MSJ: Was that your plan from the beginning? Did you have a clear vision of the running order or was that an evolution once you started the recording process?
It was definitely an evolution. The most difficult thing is if a band goes to a recording studio and, let's say, they have ten songs, like say a Rush album. Everything's written, they have no extra tracks, they'll record, walk away, and the final product is produced. I didn't approach it from that angle. I did say that this here will be the first song and this other one will be the last with some other things in the middle, but something like "Carnation,” for instance, wasn't written until a couple of weeks before the final recording session. That slotted in much better than one of the other pieces so I pulled it out and put "Carnation" in its place. In a way, the track listing was developed at the same time as the recordings, but it also had to flow freely. I didn't want it to be like a concept album, but I wanted it to have a sonic consistency.
MSJ: Another question along similar lines. I think many artists, in a variety of mediums, prize the instinctual and unconscious above all else. I was wondering what value self-awareness has to you as a musician and composer?
You've asked a very good question. There was a British produced documentary recently on the function of the mind while genius is at work. People like Sting were attached to EKG machines so they could see the brain patterns and what actually happens. There is definitely something subconscious or unconscious about music, but if you are aware of Bruce Lee's philosophy about the martial arts, you essentially train until you start forgetting what you've learned and internalize it instead. They become reflex actions or something ingrained in your own character.
MSJ: Form becomes internalized.
Yes, and I think this covers all of the arts. It goes into every field. Even athletes, like marathon runners who eventually hit this sweet spot where everything becomes sublime. I'll tell you that when I'm writing music, if I'm doing the background music for something or writing bass and drum tracks, I'll be in one frame of mind, the technical, it's got to be perfect mode of thinking. At the same time, if I'm doing the guitar or synth things, it's late at night, and I'm on a completely different level. There's definitely a mixture of these things going on.
MSJ: I think there's a higher sensibility presiding over these songs than someone merely interested in guitar heroics and you touched on that earlier, but I was wondering if you can elaborate on what your aims and ambitions are as an artist?
I suppose the original marriage of the British school of blues guitar playing with analog electronics, if you take these two things that are just so far apart in terms of style, that's sort of where I'm aimed at. The thing is, as a person writing or creating ideas, you have to look at things on a cultural level. Times I've stayed in China or Taiwan have been some of my best times for writing because I'm hearing so many interesting things. I spent some time living in the UK as well and, once again, the way you experience and approach things are completely different from the paradigm you're living with when you're at home. It's a bit tricky, but at the same time, there's so many things going on. For me, the trick with music is to not think about it so much and just keep pushing on with what you do.
MSJ: There's a lot of wisdom in that. The synth guitar has enjoyed some popularization over the years. From my own personal reference, when I think about the synth guitar, two names that immediately spring to mind are Trevor Rabin and Ritchie Blackmore. I was wondering what drew you to its possibilities.
Obviously, being a guitar player I was, I wasn't interested in getting the usual sounds and the synth. When you hear a guitarist drawing unusual sounds from the instrument, it piques your interest. To clarify, however, Blackmore and Rabin were using MIDI synthesizers, not analog. One of the limitations of the analog technology is that I can only play single notes at a time and not chords.
MSJ: That's an important distinction to note. When I listen to the guitar sounds you get on the album, I'm continually impressed with its visceral qualities. It's a very physical sound and it works in a very unexpected setting. I know Jeff Beck has been important to you as a player. Can you talk about what your study of him brought to this album?
I grew up listening to Beck and some of Jimmy Page's more obscure things like the “Death Wish 2” soundtrack and his work for Kenneth Anger that pushed the limits of things both had been doing up until that point. The thing with Jeff Beck is that, in the coming together of songs, playing, arrangements, his Blow By Blow album really defined that sort of thing for me. In recent years, after meeting him a couple of times, I can honestly say sometimes you shouldn't be meeting your heroes. I had a really good run where I became friends with people like Snowy White, Nic Potter from Van der Graff Generator, members of Hawkwind, these guys are fantastic. But sometimes when you meet someone, considering the conditions and context, you don't hit it off so well. [laughs] Jeff Beck is an amazing player. I prefer his mid seventies material and, at one stage, I did stop using a pick for about a year just trying to capture what he does with his fingers, but he has a very lyrical quality and through him I discovered The Mystery of the Bulgarian Voice, a series of albums that came out in the early nineties. He was a big fan and recommended it to me. If anything, I was trying to capture Beck's lyrical qualities through my evolution on the instrument.
MSJ:
I was wondering if you could compare how the "Mount Etna Erupts" track came to fruition and compare the album version to the performance available on YouTube.

This is an interesting one. If I go back to my first analog synthesizers, the Roland JX3P and the Moog Opus 3, what I've been doing is experimenting with some basic things. Bear in mind, I wasn't a keyboard player. I was experimenting with things where you'd have a sequence running and start writing on top of that sequence. I'd seen a documentary hosted by William Conrad back in the 1970s and I really liked this footage including the 1971 Mount Etna eruption, so I took this little snippet of VHS footage, put it on a loop, and basically just started writing to this thing. It was extremely simple. What you hear in the final version is actually two versions - the video and album performances. I wasn't happy with the guitar sound in the video version, so I dropped it on the album. I couldn't get the rights to the footage, so I contacted this guy from New Zealand who's a sort of amazing adventurer type who visits volcanoes and chases storms and films himself doing so. I managed to negotiate a price to use his Mount Etna footage from the early 2000s as backdrop for the music video clip.

MSJ:
Do you have any future ambitions to work with a singer?
I already have. The singer I use for backing vocals on the album (Elaine Wong) - we've made an album together that was released in Taiwan in 2010, but unfortunately, our follow-up was never released thanks to issues with tax subsidies that lead to us being dropped from the label. We're still good friends with the label, and it'll be released at some point, but all of it’s in Mandarin at the moment.
MSJ: Would you prefer to continue working in an instrumental realm or is that something relative to the material you have?
If I could take the instrumental structure, which is simply verse-chorus-verse stuff, and apply it to actual lyrical music, I suppose that's where I'd really like to go. Playing three and a half minute pop songs is a discipline in and of itself, and I know a lot of professional musicians actually prefer that, but at the same time, I prefer something like Yes' Fragile album. On this album, I wanted the vocal contributions to work as part of the instrumentation, so the vocal bits you do hear aren't samples or cut and pasted.
MSJ: A final, lighthearted question. Did you have any Spinal Tap moments during the making of this album?
I used to work in an old record store and one of the things we got during Spinal Tap's re-release was people coming in and asking for Shark Sandwich or Intravenous De Milo. You try to explain to people that Spinal Tap aren't a real band and they go, “oh no, I saw them on television, they were being interviewed!” Trying to explain that they weren't a real band was always difficult.
MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2015  Volume 5 at lulu.com/strangesound.
You'll find an audio interview of this artist in the Music Street Journal members area.
 
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