One of my favorite CDs to make an appearance this year comes from a band with a big Trevor Rabin or Trevor Horn kind of feel to it: Coralspin’s Honey and Lava. Very graciously, band leader Blake McQueen allowed me to take up his valuable time to interview him. This is the first of what I hope will be many such interviews at Progarchy. Here’s my review of Honey and Lava.
On to the interview.
Progarchy: Blake, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us. I’m sure you’re incredibly busy. So, again, thank you. As you know, I’m a huge fan of your first CD, and I think while you guys have already gotten a lot of notice, there’s much, much more to come. Would you mind telling our readers a bit about yourself–especially our North and Latin American readers who aren’t as familiar with the U.K. prog scene.
Blake: We come from the melodic, more song-orientated end of the prog spectrum. Ellie, the singer and keyboardist and myself, also a keyboard player, are classically trained. Ellie is also a classically-trained oboeist, although we haven’t yet put that to use! Jake had a Dad who liked to play jazz piano, and as a result Jake can play jazz piano pretty well himself, but he taught himself guitar as his main instrument. Both the guys in our new rhythm section can play piano as well, so we are an all-piano-playing band!
Speaking of the new rhythm section, this is something we want to announce, we’re very excited about it. We’ve got Mick Wilson on bass, and Ed Gorrod on drums, they’ve both joined us on a ‘session’ basis for gigging next year and for the recording of the second album. They are absolutely awesome players and the band sounds phenomenal. Mick comes from an instrumental prog band who are friends of ours called Red Bazar, we have gigged with them previously. Ed’s also in a prog band called Stuntmen.
Prog magazine recently described as like ‘Brian May and Rick Wakeman’s prog child’, which is not a bad description, although on Honey and Lava I perhaps sound more like Tony Banks than Rick Wakeman as I don’t do many whizzy keyboard bits (more of that on the next album, though).
We’re fairly eclectic, I think, in that every song is pretty different, although obviously we’re not that eclectic as it’s all in the general prog-melodic rock style – I don’t mean that we have a dubstep track followed by a country track followed by an accordion track. We’re eclectic in the way that Queen were on Night at the Opera. Every song is very distinctive in its own way, and is immediately identifiable, which is one thing I’ve noticed about the tracks by all the great 70’s bands, you never have any trouble remembering which song is which and what the names of the songs are, whereas with so many bands these days the tracks all merge together and you can barely remember the names of the songs, let alone which song was which, because they all sound kind of the same. So we’re not one of those bands who like to stick to one style of song so that they get a good ‘brand identification’. We want some variety, even though that does create the problem that people who like one of our songs aren’t necessarily going to like all the others.
Progarchy: How did the band come together, and what about the origin of the exceedingly great name, Coralspin?
Blake: The band came together gradually. Ellie and I met at work, and I found out that she was a trained opera and classical singer who had performed for a few years with the renowned Oxford Pro Musica Singers, usually as one of the soloists. She had an impressive list of places she had sung solo in, like the Albert Hall in London, the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, as well as in Venice and Padua. But then her Dad became very unwell and she had to give up the classical dream and get a job to help him out. But she said she was keen to sing modern rock music anyway, so we started playing together at my place, and I was blown away by her voice, and I started writing music that suited her voice and range, and then she started writing her own songs, and it sort of took off gradually from there.
We tried out a few band members without being really serious about it but it all really clicked when Jake came along, and he already had some fantastic material that he had been working on which fitted in with our stuff really well. Then a great rhythm section basically dropped in our lap, and at that point we knew that this band was really something. We rehearsed a lot so that the playing was really tight, and then we recorded the rhythm section just in time as both of them lost their jobs and had to move elsewhere for new jobs, which scuppered things as far as playing live went until now when we have finally found the rhythm section of our dreams.
The name Coralspin came about because a friend of ours described us as “Corpulent old raddled and louche syphilitic ponces in nowhereseville”. We thought that made a good band name, but as it was too long we just used the acronym.
Progarchy: I know this is a typical question, but who are your most important influences?
Blake: I like the great progressive bands of the 70’s like Yes, Genesis, Gentle Giant, Van der Graaf, Rush, etc., so that will all be very routine for your readers. Moving away from the usual suspects I also like Steely Dan, Ben Folds, 10CC, Todd Rundgren, Split Enz, Rupert Hine, They Might Be Giants, The Waterboys, Hatfield and the North, The Feeling, Bonzo Dog Band, ELO, OK Go, Tom Waits, The Sweet, Horslips, The Goodies and The Lightning Seeds, to pick a few less prog names out semi-randomly.
Jake tends to have rockier tastes than Ellie and I. It’s hard to pin him down on his favourite bands because he insists that he has favourite songs rather than favourite bands. But I know he likes Yes, Led Zeppelin, early Queen, early Rush, Focus, as well as some AC/DC. Ellie likes female singer-songwriters like Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell and Sandy Denny, as well as The Carpenters, 80’s doomsters like The Cure and The Smiths, and an awful lot of classical music (a field she really knows well).
Most of all, though, we all like good songs no matter who did them. It’s rare that any of us like everything that a band has done. There are some bands for whom 90% of everything that they have done is mediocre, but they have one or two killer songs. We like to go through great songs and enjoy seeing how they were put together. A few weeks ago Jake mentioned to me what a brilliantly constructed song ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree’ is, and I shouted out in agreement because I had thought so for years and had never met anyone else who appreciated this. Not that either of us really like the song that much because obviously it’s cheesy as hell, but it’s a joy to play on the piano and see the chords and melody — people assume it’s simple but actually it’s very artfully put together. Same with songs from the 30’s and 40’s, not that it’s really the sort of music that any of us listen to much, but whenever you hear a classic song from that era you so often have to admire the songwriting craft that is involved, and that’s something that it has in common with prog rock and the more ambitious end of modern pop and rock. Or even The Carpenters – that’s why so many bands admit they like The Carpenters, even though they’re saccharine, it’s because the songs are put together so well.
That’s something that I try to achieve in my songs, even when they’re simple, heartfelt songs, or apparently straightforward rockers — I still want there to be something special to the way they’re put together, so that there is a kind of beauty and elegance to them in addition to the way they sound. Something that you don’t necessarily appreciate until (and unless) you can sit down at the piano and play them. It may be a pipe dream but I like to think that other people will get the same enjoyment out of studying my songs that I used to get when I used to study song construction in my teens, when I would work out songs by my favourite bands and enjoy discovering how they put chord sequences together and how they wrote melodies.
Progarchy: Can you give us idea of writing a song is like, from beginning to final pressing.
Blake: I generally write by myself, noodling around on the keyboard, or occasionally the guitar, with chords and melodies and sounds until I get something that’s worth quickly writing down in a rough form. It takes a lot of that to get anything worthwhile, most of what I produce goes in the bin. When I’ve got something good I work on adding more sections to it, although I have various unfinished fragments still floating around. Ellie, like me, likes to write chords with melodies right from the start, but Jake usually comes up with chord patterns that he’s done on the guitar, occasionally on the piano. We have a stock of Jake chord patterns that need melodies, and sometimes one of us will have a go at adding a melody, and sometimes we’ll work on that together, just improvising melodies until we find one we really like.
Anything I want the band to listen to I usually make a rough demo of in my home studio, often with simple programmed drums, and a keyboard sound for the vocal melody, and Jake does the same as he has a little recording setup at his place. And Ellie sometimes gets me to do demos of her songs as well, although sometimes she just plays them to us instead. The demo is really just to indicate to the others how it goes. We then try the song out with the full band to see if it works. If it does, and it meets with general approval, then Jake and I will add stuff to the songs – I don’t mean new sections, I mean guitar and keyboard parts to give it all more depth and interest, although sometimes we add new sections as well – either something you had written previously fits in, or you come up with something new. We often change the structure of a song at this stage, and we might also change the melodies a bit too, and sometimes we’ll tinker with the chords, changing a Dm into a Dm6/9 sort of thing. Gradually the bassist and drummer will make their parts more interesting as well as they get to know the song.
When we do the proper recording Jake and I will often add more stuff in as well, or change things, even during the mixing stage, so really a song isn’t finished until the final pressing is released. And Ellie and I spend time working out vocal harmonies for her to sing. The harmonies in the last chorus of ‘You’re Wrong’ took a very long time to get right, but the result was definitely worth it.
As for guitar solos, Jake can improvise the best solo you’ve ever heard on the spot, but he likes to go away and write a properly constructed solo rather than just recording an ad-libbed version. Same with me.
Progarchy: If you could work with anyone, who would it be?
Blake: When I was younger I never really fantasized much about being in any of the bands I liked, I always fantasized about being in my own band. So I don’t have any great longing to work with my heroes, although I would of course be open to any offers! I did sometimes dream about asking Ray Shulman to play bass for us if we ever got big because he was like this unappreciated genius who really should still be playing.
The musicians I really want to work with are the guys in the band, and I wish we could play together every day. Jake is the complete guitar player, Mick and Ed are a rhythm section to die for, and Ellie is a great singer. So it’s these people that I want to explore music with at the moment. But if Tony Banks or Steve Hackett turned up to help out that would be rather spiffing!
Progarchy: How important are the lyrics to you, and to what extent do the lyrics and music shape each other? For example, the opening track, Sons of the Sleeping Giant is just perfect in how the music and lyrics fit each other. Was this intentional or a fortuitous happenstance?
Blake: The music always comes first with us, not for any principled reason, that’s just the way we all like to write. Jake doesn’t write a lot of lyrics anyway, so I usually write words for his songs, although recently he wrote some lyrics for a new song.
I don’t have a notebook full of lyrics which I then try to fit to a song. I’m not one of those writers that listens to conversations on buses and pubs and writes it all down, not that that’s a bad idea, I expect it’s a very good idea, though obviously it would more useful for someone doing slice-of-life type music rather than prog. You don’t often overhear old ladies on buses saying things like ‘A seasoned witch could call you from the depths of your disgrace’, do you?
So what I like to do is just listen to the music over and over trying to get a sense of what the song should be about. It often takes time for this process to work, it’s like my unconscious has to go to work on it. This is the hardest part, just getting the initial idea. Once I have that and have written a few lines to get the style then it usually all starts to flow pretty well.
I think that process worked exceptionally well on ‘Sons of the Sleeping Giant’. I mulled it over for ages and finally it all clicked, I just got this perfect idea for the song, so I thought anyway, and the lyrics feel very timely at the moment. On the lighter side, there’s also another level of meaning in there for prog fans as well with some of the words forming a little sly tribute.
I did have dreams of being a novelist when I was younger so there’s a part of me that really enjoys the lyric-writing process, and I try to bring a literary sensibility to it all, which is of course all part of the prog tradition.
Progarchy: Ten years from now, where do you see Coralspin?
Blake: Probably still promoting Honey and Lava! There are so many bands out there these days, even in the prog world, that it’s hard to get heard, let alone established, but we think that album will stand the test of time and maybe it will take quite a few years for it to really be appreciated. Maybe one day even the people who don’t like it will come around. But hopefully there will be another 3, 4 or 5 albums to go along with it by then! We have quite a lot of material written for future albums, the problem is getting the time to work it up properly, rehearse it with a stable line-up, get it recorded and mixed, and it doesn’t help that I’m very slow and exacting with the mixing. Now that I have more of an idea what I’m doing I can hopefully get it done faster next time.
We’d also intend to be a gigging band, hopefully doing festivals in Europe and the US and anywhere else that will have us. We’re going to start gigging in a few months time, with fingers crossed that external circumstances don’t scupper the line-up again. We do fancy ourselves as a hot live band.
A huge thanks to Blake for doing this. And, you should support Coralspin. Here’s the band’s official website: http://coralspin.com/