The Progarchy Interview: Tom Brislin of The Sea Within

Tom Brislin first came to prog fans’ attention as the keyboardist for Yes’ 2001 Symphonic tour, going on to work with numerous other bands in the genre.  Recently he joined guitarist Roine Stolt, bassist Jonas Reingold, drummer Marco Minnemann, and vocalists Daniel Gildenlöw and Casey McPherson in the new collective The Sea Within.  Their debut album for InsideOut is released on June 22, and Tom graciously talked about his career and TSW with us.

On becoming a musician:

“It’s a funny thing; I had this sort of clear sense of purpose for a long time.  I don’t know really how to explain it.  I don’t know if it was from the time I first heard my sister’s record collection and saw what a rock band was, and how there was this team of people that collaborate to make this music.  But it always fascinated me, and I’d always been trying to form bands – I think my first band was when I was ten years old.  And we were just always going for it, and it never stopped.  I just always identified as a musician and took lessons and played with whoever I could – and here I am now!”

On Tom’s major musical influences and heroes:

“Like I said, I was first exposed to my family’s record collection, mostly the ‘70s rock stuff from Foreigner to Yes to Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin – you name it.  But it was in the ‘80s when I was a little kid that I discovered music on my own through the radio.  So a lot of those bands that were really iconic in the early ‘80s, like The Police, Men at Work, Duran Duran, Tears for Fears, groups like that were exciting to me, because that was the music I discovered on my own.  And to this day I think there’s still a little bit of their influence.  As I became more serious about playing piano, I got really into Emerson Lake & Palmer and Gentle Giant and a lot of progressive bands, and also heavy into jazz, which I ended up going to college for. And I would say that from that time is when I really got into players like Herbie Hancock, who I guess is one of my dearest influences, because I just always admired his versatility and his mastery and pretty much anything he does musically.”

About playing with Yes:

“I had been Meat Loaf’s piano player for about three years, and we did VH1 Storytellers and a lot of UK television, and we had done a couple world tours.  Meat Loaf and Yes shared the same management company at one point.  And someone from management had been at one of our Meat Loaf concerts.  And we got to talking about Yes, and I told them that Yes was a huge influence, and how I grew up playing all that music, and that I was raised on it, practically.  And they must have remembered that!  So when the need came up, they looked me up and asked me to submit a CD playing some of [Yes’] music. And I got the gig!”

“It’s interesting, ‘cause the Meat Loaf experience was like a muscular or athletic and theatrical type of thing.  It was high-energy, three hours of Jerry Lee Lewis-influenced piano, and it was really interesting; it sort of brought me into that mentality of playing for large audiences and playing big arenas and big venues.  The Yes experience was, of course, the more cerebral challenge.  Even though there was an orchestra behind us, by the end of my first phone conversation with Jon Anderson, he wanted me to do everything a Yes keyboardist does, whether or not there’s an orchestra.  Especially once they found out I could sing, Chris Squire was especially keen on me singing backing vocals in addition to all that stuff.”

“So there was a lot of juggling going on, too.  Because, you know, a typical Yes keyboardist gets to have thirteen keyboards on stage, [laughs] and because of the orchestra being there, we didn’t have a whole lot of room, and they just wanted me to fit in with four keyboards – which in any other gig would be more than enough!  But I had some technical tap dancing to do to get all the sounds that were needed for the concert, and to bring out these parts that were initially recorded by such iconic, different-styled keyboard players.”

About the path from Yes to The Sea Within:

“While all these touring/session musician gigs were happening, I was also pursuing an original band of my own called Spiraling.  And we were touring as an opening act for groups like They Might Be Giants and Violent Femmes and OK Go.  And we were more of a modern rock, alternative/indie rock band, but there were definitely some prog influences in there.  But I was also the lead singer in that band, and the writer, so it was kind of a parallel path going on at the same time as these other gigs, or in between them, I should say.  So right after I did the Meat Loaf tour, I did some touring with Spiraling, then went into the studio, and then just kept alternating or dovetailing.”

“Same thing with Yes, once the Yes experience concluded, which I knew would be just for 2001.  That was the predetermined plan, for Rick [Wakeman] to come back the following year.  So I had planned on jumping right into the studio and finishing the next album for Spiraling.  And then I got a call to play with Camel, cause they were gonna do their US farewell tour in 2003, culminating with the performance at NEARFest, and they needed me in an emergency way.  I only had a couple of weeks to sort it out and learn all the material and jump in there.  So we did a very short run with Camel.  And again, back to Spiraling, and a few other things.  Through my resume and these experiences with these other bands, I would occasionally get calls.  I was the musical director for a Norwegian pop singer named Marion Raven on a tour of Japan, and also was musical director for Debbie Harry on two of her solo tours.  Once again, going right back to the original group, and then Renaissance and The Syn called.   Similar pattern.”

“However, years back, Spiraling was playing the CalProg Festival, and Flower Kings were also on the bill for that.  So Roine and Jonas were two musicians that I met there and we stayed in touch, and we were keeping track of each other and what was going on musically.  And then in 2015, Roine asked me to be a part of the Anderson/Stolt album, so I went to Sweden to record for that.  And then last year, he called and said, ‘Hey, let’s get an original group together.  Also with Jonas, but this time with Marco Minnemann, Daniel Gildenlöw.  And we’re gonna get together in London and do an album, so let’s all start writing.’  And that’s how The Sea Within came about.”

What each member brings to TSW:

“I would say if there’s one thing that we all have in common, it’s that we’ve all been the leader of a band; we’ve done solo projects.  So we’ve been the captains of our respective ships. And so for us to come together in this collaborative environment, there was just as much to learn about each other in terms of interfacing in a working environment, sending ideas back and forth.  And granted, having Roine and Jonas, there of course is gonna be a major Flower Kings infusion, ‘cause that’s who they are.  And one of the goals that I had was for everyone to be themselves and to bring what they brought.  I think myself and Daniel may have brought things to a slightly different place – or maybe even a drastically different place at times.  And Marco too; he brought his own flair and set of influences and musical identity into it.  So I think it was just a matter of striking that balance and finding whatever worked for the song.”

On the Sea Within’s creative process:

“I think it was a matter of create first and ask questions later.  At least that’s how I try to write music, because I feel that’s the way to get the most honest expression out there.  So if that meant taking a detour into a different feel, a different vibe, or even just a different sound altogether – if it felt right we go with it.”

Where the jazz break on “An Eye for an Eye for an Eye” came from:

“That was actually Marco’s idea!  He wrote that song, and the demos we heard were pretty much what you hear in the main part of the song, that driving rock song.  But when we were in the studio together – that’s one of the beautiful things about actually being in the room together and trying these things out; sometimes an idea will occur, a light bulb will appear over someone’s head, and we get to try it!  And Marco said, ‘Let’s go into some serious jazz from here.’  And so it wasn’t a matter of someone else coming in, like me saying, ‘Hey, do you mind if we tack on this thing?’  I never wanted to do that. But having the songwriter himself say, ‘Hey, this is what I’m picturing; let’s go for it.’ Honestly, it’s funny, because my instincts are not to solo a lot. [Laughs]  But I’ve finally been given so many opportunities to.  And that’s prog!  You get to have fun and flesh out musically.  I’m usually thinking, ‘song, song, song;’ but here, it was a chance to just improvise and have some fun with it and just flesh it out.”

“[Jonas] is another musician who I bond with, with our love of jazz.  We talk about it a lot, and we’ve had similar paths with that sort of jazz background, but playing rock music professionally.  It always sort of piques our interest if there’s a way to express those influences that are coming to mind.  It’s funny, because you mention our personal styles. In my solo music – I produced a solo album, Hurry Up and Smell the Roses a few years ago, and most of that is real singer-songwriter based stuff, so I wasn’t even going for flash, or trying to wow anybody with technical skill, or anything like that.  It was just, ‘song, song, song’ – I’m always repeating that. It’s very challenging to write a song!”

On the album’s epic, “The Sea Without/Broken Cord”:

“Those two pieces in particular are very much driven by Roine, and composed by him.  ‘The Sea Without’ was actually something that he wrote during our session, or very close to it.  That was one of the later pieces of the puzzle.  But it just so happened that once we had the music together, we could experiment with playlists and see what the good flow was. Because we all love albums; we’re album people.   When he wasn’t busy recording in the studio with us, Marco would take a quick walk down to the record store and he’d come back with some used vinyl that he was searching for.  So we all are just fans of music; we love music, we love sitting down with a record.  So I think it was – I wouldn’t say easy, but it was definitely something that we relished, the idea of making a complete listening experience from beginning to end, including album sides.”

About the second CD:

“It’s very interesting because, almost unanimously, the people I talk to [say] that it doesn’t seem like a bonus disc, it seems like a continuation of the album.  And that’s the way we looked at it, too.  I think perhaps because it isn’t a second full-length disc that the way they present it is like you’re getting a bonus.  Which is fine, but we never thought any less of the material that was on disc two.  It maybe needed its own sonic space in terms of the flow from one song to another.”

On making new music in the face of prog history and fan expectations:

“[This] genre pays so much tribute to the classics.  And the community is relatively small compared to the greater pop landscape; it’s a dedicated fanbase that has a lot to say.  And it’s easy to listen to the wrong voices that say, ‘Prog has to be this.  I’m looking for this criteria, this checklist, it has to fit these elements in order for it to satisfy my definition of this.’  Whereas I prefer to just think of it as no rules; that’s something Rick Wakeman said years ago.  And let’s just not have any rules, because all the genre pigeonholing was a product of the record store era, where you had to actually physically file these records in different parts of the shelf.  That’s not really the case anymore.  So we know it’s progressive; you know the musicians here.  And so if it happens to be that we come together, and a three to four minute pop tune is on the menu and it’s honest and it’s real, then it’s fair game!  We don’t have to add requisite bars of odd-time signatures or any sort of fluff to satisfy some sort of rule.  But on the other side of the coin, if we believe, if our imagination is telling us, ‘Hey!  This needs to go into some odd-time signature here or have a big solo here,’ then as long as it’s honest and true, it’s fair game.”

“It’s interesting, because I’ve had the fortune of seeing fanbases from different styles of music, and they all have sort of a different vibe, but the support has been great especially with the progressive audience.”

On The Sea Within’s touring prospects, following July’s Night of the Prog in Germany and 2019’s Cruise to the Edge:

“We would love to tour next year, possibly in the spring. Where exactly, I’m not sure, but we’ll see what the logistics will allow.”

The recording that shows who Tom Brislin is, as a songwriter and musician:

“I think my solo album Hurry Up and Smell the Roses, that’s the place to start, because I feel it was a real complete expression of songwriting, from lyrics to music. It definitely is on the gentler side, so it doesn’t tell the whole story of what I’m about, but I think it’s a great place to start.”

On his appearance at Yes FanFest this July in Philadelphia:

“I’m really glad that they’re doing something like this in America, and especially in Philadelphia, which seems to be the flashpoint of Yes fandom in this country.  [It’ll be great] being there celebrating this music with Patrick Moraz and Tony Kaye and Geoff Downes and all these guys, and all the fans who have been very supportive of what I’ve been doing over the years.”

And there’s more to come:

“I’m putting together a group of my friends to perform at the ProgStock Festival in New Jersey, which is gonna be in October.  And I’ve got members of Snarky Puppy, Lo-Fi Resistance, The Tea Club, and some other great musicians that I’ve been fond of, to come together and collaborate and make some new music, and I’ll be doing a bit from my catalog as well.”

Thanks to Tom Brislin for his time, and to Roie Avin of InsideOut Music for arranging this interview!

— Rick Krueger


6 thoughts on “The Progarchy Interview: Tom Brislin of The Sea Within

  1. carleolson

    Fantastic interview! Lots of great insights here.

    This jumped out at me: “And I would say that from that time is when I really got into players like Herbie Hancock, who I guess is one of my dearest influences, because I just always admired his versatility and his mastery and pretty much anything he does musically.”

    During my first listen to The Sea Within CD, the jazz solo discussed in the interview caught my attention: “Wha…..?!” Fabulous.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. kruekutt

      Mainstream jazz was a much bigger part of early prog; you can hear generous helpings of it in The Nice and early King Crimson. Once the genre hit its commercial peak (1971 or 72), much less so; Emerson moved more into ragtime, stride and boogie piano on the later ELP albums, and Crimson moved away from it when the saxophonists (Ian McDonald, then Mel Collins) left, though they were still an improvising band. British jazz/rock — Colosseum, Nucleus, Keith Tippett, Soft Machine after their first couple of albums — came into its own at that point. It’s definitely cool to hear the two styles mix again!

      Liked by 1 person

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