BY PAUL WATSON
In hindsight as far as history and recognition goes, there are two major bands that went some way to building Yes, or at least bought some of those parts together where they would in a short time later shape and direct them to a certain defining sound.
(The Syn playing at the Marquee in 1966 – photos used by kind permission and the property of Jacki Downey)
For all intents and purposes the sounds were already there. One of those bands is The Syn formed back in 1965 by Steve Nardelli and George Arzimanow which would go on to include Andrew Jackman, John Painter, Chris Squire, Peter Banks, Martyn Adelman, Gunnar Jökull Hákonarson to name a few. For their troubles during their first but very short incantation they would go on to having a strong following in the 60’s playing important gigs at The Marquee in London with the likes of Hendrix and other important bands of the time.
Oddly enough they only put out two singles during this 3 year period. The first 45 had “Created By Clive” on side one and on the other, “Grounded” that The Syn included in their playlist at Rosfest last year. Their next single, both side one and two would also get to be played live at Rosfest. “14 Hour Technicolour Dream” is probably their most recognisable track for most prog fans and paid a certain homage to one of the concerts of the same name back in the swinging 60’s. Surprisingly to the band the B-side number “Flowerman” went on to become a No.1 song on French radio. They would soon split up with Squire and Banks moving on to Mabel Greer’s Toyshop and then renamed to Yes.
Since then there have been a few projects around The Syn, including one that never got off the ground with Tony Banks (the master tapes were unfortunately lost), and then their first album in 2004 “Original Syn 1965 – 2004” which included a compilation of their songs (some rarities) and also a great mellow version of a Yes standard, “Time & A Word.”
2004 also saw them in the studio with Steve Nardelli bringing in Paul Stacey, Gerard Johnson, Gary Husband and also the return of Chris Squire on their first released album “Syndestructible” which included for me, my favourite track by the band, “Catherdral of Love,” released in 2005.
So bringing it up-to-date, in a way The Syn have been making up for lost time given the slim pickings of releases from where and when they began back in the last century to now having released their 6th album THE SYN LIVE ROSFEST.
Wikipedia notes, “The Rites of Spring festival or RoSfest is an annual progressive rock festival which takes place at the end of April or in early May. Established in 2004, the festival was held at the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania until 2007, and then moved to the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, Pennsylvania for 2008 and 2009…. The intent of the promoters was to establish a new international progressive rock festival in the United States. The inaugural three-day festival was held April 24, 25, and 26, 2004 at the famous Colonial Theatre located in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. The RoSfest artwork since 2007 has been designed by Ed Unitsky. Through the 2013 festival, 104 different bands will have performed at the Rites of Spring Festival.”
May 1 -3 2009 saw a number of Prog bands and artists meet at the Keswick Theatre in Pennsylvania for the 6th ROSfest gatherings. Included there were Nectar, Barclay James Harvest, Lazuli, The Syn, Moon Safari, Frost, Moth Vellum, Mangala Vallis, Touchstone, Abigail’s Ghost and others. A veritable international summit of great bands with all sorts of flavours of sound to suit and discover.
The Syn started an American tour in April 2009 after the release of their album Big Sky (Progressive Music magazine voted Big Sky best Prog album for 2009). Included with founding Syn member, vocalist and songwriter, Steve Nardelli were Francis Dunnery (It Bites, and working with Robert Plant, Big Big Train and Frost) on guitar, Tom Brislin (played with Yes, Renaissance, Camel, Meatloaf) on keyboards, Jamie Bishop (Stratospheerius) on bass, Brett Kull on guitar and Paul Ramsey on drums (both of Echolyn fame). Their setlist for the concert would include songs from the new album as well as a few numbers from the early years. The CD records this concert and the accompanying videos include ‘The making of Big Sky’ showing the band in practise, filmed and produced by Matt Urban, and ‘The Syn in the 21st Century’ with interviews with Steve and previous members reflecting on the formative years, directed by Kazimir Bielecki and Lennie Vareaides. It also pays homage to a mutual friend of mine, Jacki Downey who with Jenny Tissington ran The Syn fan club back in the 60’s, and who was very supportive recently unearthing a bunch of black & white photos of The Syn playing at The Marquee which includes Peter Banks on guitar to forward to Steve for this documentary. There are a lot of memories of that time shared here. You’ll also pick up Steve conversing on the Live CD with the audience during songs on how some of these tracks originated. It’s a very polished performance by all on the day. This live and video album resonate on so many levels. The Syn were one of the pebbles thrown into the pool that would become Progressive Rock. The music of their time has become the sound of our times and well worth exploring as the band once again moves forward I the 21st century. Look out for a new studio album which will feature members of Moon Safari on it. Can’t wait!
Steve Nardelli kindly took time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions for Progarchy regarding this album as well as other points of interest…
PROGARCHY: Just trying to set the scene, or should I say “set the Syn”… although a lot of this is covered in Henry Potts’s excellent interview with you back in November 2003 (http://www.bondegezou.co.uk/iv/sninterview.htm) and I don’t want to go over old ground too much… how surreal was it for you back then in the late 60’s caught up and involved in the whole psychedelic music movement as it started gathering momentum and playing before all your heroes like The Beatles and the Stones on stage?
STEVE NARDELLI: Surreal is the right description. It’s just a blur on one level and yet some very vivid memories as well. The cramped stage at the Marquee, the even more cramped dressing room shared with Hendrix and his band, the even more cramped audience area (there were a record 1400 people there that night in a club that held 1000 maximum!), the Beatles, the Stones, Clapton, Townshend…..’was this for real or was it surreal?’
PROGARCHY: As far as origins go, who came up with the name ‘The Syn’ and why? Did you have any other names for the band considered?
STEVE NARDELLI: ‘The Syn’ was the idea of our first guitarist, John Painter. He had played in a band with me called ‘High Court’ and we had met Chris Squire, Andrew Jackman and Martyn Adelman at a battle of the bands competition at the Hampstead Country Club when they were playing in their band ‘The Selfs’. John and I had just changed our name to ‘The Syn’ when we decided to merge with the ‘Selfs’ as a new version of ‘The Syn’ and that’s how it started.
PROGARCHY: I started off this article in the first paragraph using a line from one of your songs, “Life doesn’t run in straight lines…” It’s interesting in Chris Welch’s book ‘Close To The Edge: The Story of Yes (Omnibus Press) that Chris reflected, “… The Syn were very similar to Yes in fact. It was very much a precursor to Yes… and we did similar stuff with three and even four part vocal harmonies…” With that in mind and given the ingredients were there where Chris took them into Mabel Greers Toyshop with Peter Banks and Jon Anderson and then Yes, is there a part of you still that still wishes you had stayed together instead of calling it a day even though you all felt you had gone as far as you could and was getting into the boutiques side of things?
STEVE NARDELLI: No, I thought at the time that ‘The Syn’ had come to the end of its cycle and I moved on to other projects, I have tended to do that all my life. I was very pleased to reform the band in 2003 thanks in part to the interview with Henry you reference and I think that Syndestructible reflects the direction ‘The Syn’ would have taken if we had stayed together.
PROGARCHY: One thing I’ve always admired about The Syn is the impressive line up you put together for either an album or a live gig, and I guess back in 2009 you were playing live in support of your new album “Big Sky.” Can you go through your mindset selecting two of the more notable musicians such as Francis Dunnery and Tom Brislin for this album and of course the ROSfest concert?
STEVE NARDELLI: Francis Dunnery was originally scheduled to play with ‘The Syn’ on the ‘More Drama Tour’ that was cancelled following the terrorist attacks in London that resulted in visa problems. I’m a big fan of Francis and was always looking for the opportunity to work with him again at some point. Tom Brislin I knew from his work touring with Yes and I went to see him play some shows in New Jersey with his band Spiralling. He is a terrific keyboard player, singer and a really nice person to work with. I was also drawn to keeping the Yes connection for continuity reasons.
PROGARCHY: What were some of the challenges you faced getting the band together before you performed?
STEVE NARDELLI: Not very many. The reason being that Francis was the musical director and Brett Kull lined up the Echolyn road and sound men. By the time I arrived from England to Philadelphia, the band had rehearsed for a week at Brett’s studio and we were ready to tour. Everything went incredibly smoothly until I got recalled to London following the Government selecting my eco town promotion at Bicester as one of 4 eco towns to be developed and the tour had to be postponed after the Rosfest show. As it turned out, our last performance with that line-up.
PROGARCHY: How did you become involved with ROSfest?
STEVE NARDELLI: We got a late booking following one of the bands cancelling and it fitted very nicely with our tour schedule. All credit as well to our agent Gary Hill for sorting it all out with George Roldan, the Rosfest promoter and thoroughly good person.
PROGARCHY: Where did the idea of filming your performance come about?
STEVE NARDELLI: We recorded the show at Rosfest, we did not film it. What you are confusing is the shows and workshops we did at Gloucester High School in Virginia. The shows and workshops were filmed by the students and that is what we used in the film ‘The Syn in the 21st Century’. The school workshops were organised by local radio presenter and teacher Steve Sikes-Nova and were a highlight of the tour in many ways, connecting with young people through music is magic.
PROGARCHY: What was it like drawing songs you had written and played, what nearly 50 years ago, like, “14 Hour Technicolour Dream” and “Grounded” and playing them in 2009 before an audience who for some of them may have been hearing them for the first time?
STEVE NARDELLI: I know the songs so well, it is so natural for me to sing them. I liked what we did with ‘14 Hour Technicolour Dream’, it was a classic ‘Grounded’ and we created a whole storyline around ‘Flowerman’ that was very well received and features on the cd.
PROGARCHY: What were some of the highlights for you at this festival?
STEVE NARDELLI: The friendliness of the audience and George Roldan and his Rosfest team; selling over 400 copies of our Big Sky cds; meeting Moon Safari for the first time that has resulted in our collaboration on the new album from ‘The Syn’ called ‘Trustworks’ that will be released later this year. ‘The Syn Live Rosfest’ cd/dvd is the perfect prelude to that album because it’s all connected.
PROGARCHY: On a certain level and this is just my own personal observation, my first impression is that you come from the old school of Bob Dylan in not just poetic storytelling but also the styling of your voice (especially in the later years). Would there be any truth to this? Did Bob Dylan
STEVE NARDELLI: I’m a big Bob Dylan fan, so yes I have been very influenced by him on every level, singing and writing.
PROGARCHY: The CD also includes two documentaries on DVD with one being a kind of retrospective history of ‘The Syn in the 21st Century’ (20:12) minutes There must have been a lot of mileage from the past 50 years to draw from. What for you personally were some of the pivotal moments you’re most proud of?
STEVE NARDELLI: I’m proud of our history, the association with Yes, the Marquee days, playing with Hendrix, the great musicians that I have been honoured to work with across the years, the songs I’ve written and the music we’ve created.
PROGARCHY: And also the other being ‘Making Of Big Sky’ (23 minutes) where we also get to see you, Francis, and Tom working together for the song creation and recording of ‘Big Sky’ as well as an in depth interview with each of you. There was an interesting comment during it that Francis made regarding how during these moments accidents happen which benefit the overall album? Are there any instances that come to mind on any of these songs that you can give an example of this during the making of this album?
STEVE NARDELLI: We chose to include ‘New Reality’ as a music interlude and it ended up as one of the defining tracks on the album, you never know what happens with tracks when you break away from a rigid structure and let them develop a life of their own.
PROGARCHY: It was also interesting to note that you actually started recording this album with just Francis (guitar) and Tom (keyboards) before adding the vocals and drums. How did you arrive at that decision to doing it that way? Were you happy with the outcome and would you record it that way again?
STEVE NARDELLI: The three of us demoed the tracks first with my guide vocal, so we had a good idea of how we were going to record when we went in the studio. So we recorded guitar and keyboards, drums and bass, finally vocals in that order. It’s very similar to how we recorded ‘Syndestructible’ actually, the key thing is to create decent demos as the footprint to the album. It’s the same process we have used on the new ‘Trustworks’ album as well, we could have released the demos they are that good. I guess that’s how I like to work, I also spend a lot time writing and developing the songs over a long period of time.
PROGARCHY: I guess it put you in good stead for playing live?
STEVE NARDELLI: We knew the songs back-to-front by the time we got to tour them, so yes, it created a good base for playing live.
PROGARCHY: Of course The Syn are currently working on a new album with Moon Safari which is an interesting and exciting project for most of us and look forward to hearing when it is completed – was it at ROSfest that you met up with them? How did the idea come about that both bands should join together and write and record an album?
STEVE NARDELLI: I’m a big fan of Moon Safari. I saw them at Rosfest playing at the festival with us and I already had an idea for a new album of operatic proportions. So their amazing harmonies were like a dream come true for my concept and I asked them if they would like to make the next Syn album with me and they said yes. I’ve been back and forth to the far north of Sweden over the last 5 years working up the tracks and in the last 6 months we have actually started studio recording. Jonas Reingold has joined as our producer and we are getting close to the finishing line. It’s a brilliant album though I say so myself!
PROGARCHY: A lot of bands these days in Metal and Prog are playing onboard specially packaged cruise tours. Is this something that would appeal to you to do or does your work involved in setting up Eco-towns in the UK pretty much conflict with the time you have for music these days?
STEVE NARDELLI: The Eco town is a huge project, a defining project for me with another hat on. 6000 houses, 4 schools, massive infrastructure, sustainable and carbon free environment, Prog Town! I’m building a Hollywood Bowl type theatre there, a farm school, hotels, retirement village, it’s a project I created from start to finish, designed by my friend and master architect Sir Terry Farrell as 4 interlocking villages, recently awarded Garden City status by Prime Minister David Cameron, I can’t help but be very proud of my achievement and my knighthood’s in the post. Everybody said I couldn’t do it and I did, ‘if you’re not afraid to lose, you will never fail’. Meanwhile the collaboration with Moon Safari on the new album is in parallel with the Eco town project which has given me balance, and the two have grown organically together. My music and the Eco town have worked together to create a positive force and a positive outcome. Meeting Moon Safari has been a blessing for me. I wouldn’t get much balance on a cruise tour, I suffer from terrible sea sickness!
Steve recommends purchasing your cd/dvdcopy of THE SYN LIVE ROSFEST from AMAZON at Amazon.com http://www.amazon.com/Live-Rosfest-Syn/dp/B00TZ0K7OK/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1433024939&sr=8-1&keywords=the+syn
THE SYN can also be found on FACEBOOK at https://www.facebook.com/groups/276996575742598/?fref=ts