Full disclosure: I PLAY ON THE NEW BARDIC DEPTHS ALBUM!!!!!
Now that I’ve got that out of my system . . . oh, wait. You want details?
Having gotten to know Dave Bandana through this website and the Big Big Train group on Facebook, I was one of the folks who contributed spoken words (“This! Is! War!”) for The Bardic Depths’ 2020 debut. I had mentioned to Dave that, if he ever needed a church organ part for an album, he should get in touch. Which didn’t lessen my surprise when, in that strange summer of 2020, he did! And so, I wound playing not only church organ for Promises of Hope’s closing track “Imagine” (no, not that “Imagine”), but a Hammond organ solo on the opener “And She Appeared.” Being listed in the album booklet as a “special guest” has turned out to be more of a kick than I ever would have anticipated.
With all that as backstory, Dave agreed to join me for a chat about the new album, released worldwide on June 24th! We cover its genesis and the integral contributions of lyricist/conceptualizer Brad Birzer, producer Robin Armstrong, the new core band that plays on every track, and other collaborators. (And yeah, there are a few minutes devoted to a goofy volunteer keyboardist.) The video of our conversation is below, with a complete transcription following.
So, brand new Bardic Depths album! I’ve been looking forward to it, for reasons we will probably get into – but I know a lot of people are as well! But what was the initial impetus for returning to the world of The Bardic Depths?
The success of the first one, and the actual joy of recording the first one and bringing it all together. Especially as, when we originally had done the first album, we didn’t know how it was gonna finish off. It was just gonna be a little home studio thing with me and Brad [Birzer] and a few friends. But then as more friends got involved in it, and then Peter Jones got involved and Robin [Armstrong] got involved, and the thing turned into a fully-fledged proper album. And just the joy of doing that and seeing the fruition from that, we couldn’t not do a second album!
And to be honest, I was straight on writing even before the first one was released. So that was the major impetus for wanting to do a second album. And, hopefully the same thing’s gonna happen for a third one as well!
So, you were so excited that you already had material going for this?
I didn’t have material going. I knew that I wanted to write again and started writing straight away from when that first one came out. I can’t even remember how much of that initial burst of enthusiasm got used on Promises of Hope. Probably a few snippets of it, but the writing certainly started as the first one was completed.
OK. So, where did the concept that drives this album – the overall, the lyrical concept — emerge from? I’m assuming Brad Birzer had a great deal to do with that. But where did that come from?
Yeah, he had a lot to do with it! Brad had sent me a little novelette thing that he’d written, a story. I’d suggested to him a while back, “you’re a great writer. Have you ever written a novel?” He said, “well actually, I started on one, but I never got it finished.” So, he sent that to me, and I said, “this would be a great idea for a concept album.” So, he then carried on and took it — he didn’t actually complete the story; what he did was, he took it as far as he’d gone with it and elaborated around it a little bit more. So, Brad was the guy that came up with the story for the second one.
And in the publicity, you mention that Virgil and C.S. Lewis are the two bards here. And it seems to me that the Virgil, if I’m reading the story right, it’s the story of Dido and Aeneas from the Aeneid.
Got that one right! I can’t place the C.S. Lewis part of it, but I’m sure I’ll figure it out as time goes by.
Brad’s the person to speak to for this. I think the actual C.S. Lewis part is actually in the booklet. In the booklet Brad’s written a whole page, basically detailing what the story’s all about. [Searching his memory] I can’t remember the complete title of the book. [A later message from Dave stated that the book is The Horse and His Boy from The Chronicles of Narnia.] Anyway, Brad’s actually quoted from that book, so we’ll see it in there, so we’ll know which one it is.
I left the story to Brad; it’s a tricky sort of subject. But I think it’s one that we dealt with in a not-complex way, in quite a simplistic way. But it told the story that we wanted to tell; it didn’t go into too much detail, but it gives the listener something to think about.
Uh-huh. So why Promises of Hope as the title?
The original title was gonna be Hope, Not Victory. But as an album title, that was possibly a little bit more difficult to explain away. And I liked Promises of Hope; it appears a lot in the lyrics – “with promises of hope, but never of victory” is a line that comes up quite a lot. And I think to have a promise of hope is something to look forward to, rather than the other way around. So, I changed it to make it a little more joyous, for want of a better word, yeah?
Got it! So, as you were recording this, how did the core band that you wound up with at the end of this album take shape as you were making this album?
Yeah, that’s an interesting question! [Laughs] I had started writing all the songs, and what I’d do is I’d put down drum tracks with keyboards; I’d put down bass and guitars and whatever, of how I think the song’s gonna go.
But to start off with, Gareth [Cole] – and it’s a shame he’s not here – Gareth had a massive input to this. I would send him a song that just needed a guitar solo. And Gareth would come back to me with not only the guitar solo, but also twenty other parts going throughout the song! And we were in contact all the time, and he said, “wouldn’t it be a good idea if we did this here?” and “could we do that here?” And as far as I’m concerned, when you’re working with someone with the talent that he’s got on guitar – I’m a very average guitar player – then, I just let him run with it!
I remember reading [Talk Talk’s] Mark Hollis once said, “I’ve got these people working with me, and they can do whatever they want, and then we’ll put it all together at the end.” And that’s basically how I work. If I’m saying to somebody, “I want you to do so and so and so and so,” they can do that exactly how they want to do it. I’m not saying I want it note for note; I just want a solo in there! But if you want to do it really bombastic, you do it bombastic; if you want to do it really nice and quiet, you do it exactly how you want to do it. And that’s the working relationship I had with Gareth. There was never a time when I said, “I don’t want you to do this, I want you to do so and so.” He used his own ideas to come up with it. And that’s how some of the guys got writing credits as well, because the contributions they made to the songs was so immense, it changed the structure of the song, and made everything better!
So, both Gareth and Peter Jones were collaborating with you at that level?
Again, initially, the whole idea with Peter was to use his sax skills. But then I’d written some songs and I’d tried to sing them, and they just didn’t sound great. It just wasn’t either in my range, or I didn’t have that certain knack to sing these songs. And so. I just asked Peter, “Pete, would you like to have a go at this?” Pete was really enthusiastic about it; he enjoyed himself on the first one. Again, he knows he’s got a license to do what he wants.
However, with Pete it’s different! I would send Pete my vocal as a melody line, and Pete would sing it exactly back to me as I’d written it, which I thought was really respectful. But at the same time, when he did sing it back to me, it was absolutely immense! It was so much better – of course it’s so much better, it’s Peter Jones! – than what I’d done. That happened on one song.
And then Pete obviously got involved on backing vocals on songs like “Why Are You Here?” And again, he wouldn’t send me one line of backing vocals, he’d send me eight lines of backing vocals! And we’d turn it into choirs and choruses. Right the way through to when we got to the mixing stage, we had a vocal line for the song “Regal Pride” that’d actually been sung by me that got discarded. It’d been sung by Robin that got discarded. It’d been sung by Gareth that we were going to use. But even so, we all agreed that there was something absolutely missing from this, and we needed something more. At the last minute I said to Peter Jones, “Pete, will you sing this for us?” Two days later, he came back with the most amazing vocal line ever! So, we were really pleased with that. So yes, that’s how Pete got involved. Then he’s playing his whistle on various tracks, and he’s playing some absolutely amazing saxophone on it as well. So, to work with these guys is brilliant.
Tim Gehrt, Tim was really enthusiastic about all of this. Last time, he was on, I think, four of the tracks, and we had to use drum samples on a couple of them. This time, all nine tracks — Tim’s playing drums for the whole thing. And again, his drum contributions are absolutely sensational! And so, he got really enthusiastic about it. It was to have all those guys onboard. And because they’d worked so hard with that, and also they’d contributed to every single song, it made sense to promote The Bardic Depths as a band, rather than as individuals and a consortium. There’s obviously still the other guys that are in there as well.
But I think one of the things that let us down last time with the first album was that the identity probably wasn’t quite right. People didn’t realize that it was a proper band as such. And so this time I wanted to make sure that the people knew who the guys are that were playing on it, and that The Bardic Depths were, in inverted commas, ‘a band.’ Even though we’ll probably never play together live, we’re still a band for this record!
Well, there goes one of my other questions, but . . . ! Cause I was gonna ask about live, really knowing that it was a long shot no matter what. But I tend to agree with you. I thought of that first album as something like Steely Dan would do, where they bring in players and they either give the players free rein like you’re talking about, or they tell them what to play. And so, the identity isn’t as strong without, as you say, a core group of people who are collaborating and really bringing the music together. So that makes a lot of sense.
But there were plenty of other contributors. You have Robin Armstrong; I think it was on “Regal Pride” you’ve got Sally Minnear doing some vocals as well.
She did. She did some background singalong vocal type of things; she’s quite prominent on the chorus of that, yeah.
What are some of the other highlights that you thought that some of your contributors and special guests, if you will, brought to the party?
For me, everything’s a highlight! Paolo [Limoli]’s piano playing on “Why Are You Here?” is great, and also especially on “Imagine” as well at the end. And he’s got his nice classic Mellotron sound on there as well.
John William Francis on his marimba plays some great lines on the song “Returned.” And also on “Why Are You Here?” and also, on “Returned” as well, you’ve got Mike Warren’s cello. A cello is quite a hard instrument to bring to a fore in a mix; but if you listen really closely to it, it’s there and it’s bringing the song along. It’s a nice sound to it.
And Mike has that little solo on the coda of “Why Are You Here?”, doesn’t he? Cause he goes up to the high end.
There’s a violin in there as well [by Olga Kent]. There’s a violin in there with the cello.
Oh, OK, got it! What I noticed about those marimba and vibes contributions, they worked really well with some of the – I wouldn’t say “out there” styles, but I know you referred to this album as “prog with a few surprises.”
And “Returned” was one of those for me; it’s like “this is like Tangerine Dream. And then it goes into funk!” [Laughs] And somehow the marimba fits with all that.
It does, yeah! Again, during the verses I’d said to John, “OK, play something here.” And he came up with that line that plays along underneath the vocal on there. But yeah, that middle bit evolved quite nicely, especially when Robin got involved with the mix at the end. Because Robin added quite a lot to that chorus. He added the funky bass thing; Gareth had already added a James Brown guitar thing going on. And then we had extra keyboards on there. So that chorus went from a throwaway chorus into a major type of – how do you say? – groove funk type thing. It’s a weird song; it’s a strange song! It’s one of my favorites on the album.
Well, that’s one of the interesting things about this album to me – it goes into, as you say, some different directions than the first one, certainly. The other thing I noticed, and we actually talked about that when you asked me to work on “And She Appeared,” the first track – you said that was kind of like a Cure song, at least back at that stage of it!
Back at that stage it was! I had this bass line going along where, as well as playing the root notes, I was playing high up on the fretboard. And to me, it sounded a little bit Cure-ish. But again, that evolved, because we started adding extra guitars, and more guitars, and other guitars, and Gareth came in. So that got quite heavy. But at the same time, we kept everything going along. We broke it down in the middle, and then when your little organ part goes in, and then your organ solo, again it takes it somewhere else! And then we come back to the Cure thing. There was nothing that we ever said, “we can’t do this sort of thing because it’s not prog!” That would have been absolutely ridiculous. I always let the music go where it wants to go. If it wants to go in a Cure direction, or a Tangerine Dream direction, or a prog-funk direction, that’s where it goes! There’s no labels on this album when it comes to The Bardic Depths.
And texturally, the other thing I hear that’s very 1980s reminiscent, at least to me – on a track like “The Essence” and even the later part of “Imagine,” there’s those big, fat Thomas Dolby-ish synthesizer chords. The ones that just kind of lay out there and they eat up all the frequencies. Those are fun!
“The Essence” was quite interesting, because very early on, I’d been sending some ideas to Robin. They were nowhere near completed, these ideas; they were pretty rough. And I possibly caught him on a wrong day, because he came back to me and said, “there’s not a lot that I can work with here at the minute.” He said, “remember back to how you wrote when you wrote ‘The Flicker’,” which was the little pop type thing which we released as the first single, that was in the middle of “Depths of Time.” He said, “remember back to how you wrote that.”
I thought, “well I’m not having this, alright?” And within a day and a half I’d written that riff and come up with the keyboard parts for it. Basically, just using sequencers, but they sounded really, really nice! They fitted absolutely perfectly to the words that Brad had sent me as well. So, within two days I’d written that and sent that back to Robin, and he said, “what the heck have you done there? This is absolutely brilliant!”
And that song evolved; it stayed how it was for quite a while, and then I said to Tim Gehrt – cause I’d programmed drums on it. And I’d said to Tim, “just keep that drum beat really nice and steady. We don’t need flashy on here.” Which he did. Pete then came up with a really nice sax solo in the middle. And that was it! It was just two synthesizers, a sax, a vocal or a couple of vocals, and the drums. And then, just before the mixing stage, Gareth came up with some guitar textures, and so he added those. And then Robin obviously got hold of it to mix it, and then just really beefed it up, and put in the extra sounds, the extra reverb in there that gives it the meaty [deep] sound that it ended up to be. And that’s basically our pop song! That’s the pop song on the album.
OK. Well, I can tell that Robin is also a major contributor. I know that you’ve given him all kinds of credit for bringing the debut album to the place it got to. And I’m assuming that kind of collaboration with his input, not just on production but on the music, continued here.
It did. It’s not until we actually finish what we’re doing here — and the guys in their own studios — then it goes to Robin. But then what happens there is that, again, I said to him, “you’ve got free rein to do whatever you want to do here. You want to add extra instrumentation, you do it!” And he then mixes it from scratch – although I’ve sent him demos of how I think it should sound. I’m quite happy for him then to do say, “actually, no – this guitar part in your mix is really, really low; I’m gonna make it a lot louder in my mix,” and vice versa. He does what he wants to do with it!
And again, he would turn around and say, “this bass part is nice, but it could be different!” And I said, “OK, if it’s different, do it, record it!” And he does! So, there’s a couple of bass parts that I’d done that we removed and Robin put his own bass parts on. But again, I’m quite happy for him to do that, because at the end of the day, we want the best sounding record that we can come up with!
And that’s it, so that’s how we work, and as I say, the guy’s an absolute genius. He can make audio sound so, so good! But he’s also very clever with the way that he arranges things as well, and the way that he pulls everything together. I became a better mixer from learning from him from the first album to this one. But I still wasn’t anywhere near where I needed to be to put out a professional sounding record. And that’s the level that Robin then takes it to. Yeah! Guy’s so clever, and we’re really privileged to have him working with us.
I guess this is the best time, if any, to address the elephant in the room. Because I wanted to tell you how honored I am that I was able to contribute to the album. You know, the prospect of being slammed in Prog Magazine just delights me to no end! [Laughs] No, I’m just kidding.
Let me tell you something! There’s been quite a few comments from the people that worked within – they’re in the band and have heard the album. One of these comments came especially from Robin, and that’s this: “that church organ on the song ‘Imagine’ is absolutely out of this world!” And everybody absolutely raves about that 30-or-45-second piece that you did there. They go absolutely crazy over it!
Well, it was fun to put together. And I’m not gonna reveal my deep, dark secrets as to how I did it, but . . .
I was gonna ask you! [Laughs] Was it recorded live in the church?
Oh, well . . . it was recorded at my church; it was not recorded live; but let me tell you how it worked. As I think I told you when we were working on the other solo, I’m more of a composer guy than an improv guy. So, what I did was I took your lead sheet. I said, “OK, it’s gotta fit X amount of seconds and it’s gotta do this.” And I was playing a piece; it’s one of Mendelssohn’s organ sonatas [Organ Sonata No. 6]. And I basically just ripped the idea completely off Mendelssohn’s organ sonata. Because it sounded like Rick Wakeman, right? That’s what you were going for.
And so, I said, “OK, I’ve gotta get from here to there in 52 seconds. There’s no way I can whip this up to play it live in the time I’ve got.” But, on that instrument, I’ve got a digital MIDI recorder. So, what I did was I played it in at about 1/3rd speed, then I sped it up, made sure it hit the time frame you wanted, and when I hit play, recorded.
Well, whatever you did, it was immense! It was absolutely fabulous. And we used it at the beginning of the song, and I don’t know if you’d noticed, but we used it in the middle of the song as well, when Pete’s singing over it.
I did notice that, and to have what I did followed by Peter Jones just hitting it out of the park with that vocal — oh!!! So much fun.
And then I thought, “if we’ve got it there and it’s so good, why not reverse it and stick on the end as well?”
And that works!!! I couldn’t believe it when I heard it! That was a delight. People have been asking me about this, and part of me goes, “well, you know, I only played for three minutes on this thing!” But I’m really excited that I was able to do that. I listened to the album again this morning, and when I get through to “And She Appeared,” I’m going, “you know, that’s actually pretty decent.” Good thing the guitar solo follows and makes it even better! [Both laugh]
It was great to have you on there. It’s a talking point; it is the talking point on the record so far.
Well, we’ll see how that plays out. But you’ve definitely launched the publicity. How did you decide to make “The Burning Flame” the first single?
A couple of reasons. We haven’t mentioned him yet, Kevin McCormick, who’s Brad’s friend, and plays some amazing guitar. “The Burning Flame” had lots of things going for it. One, it had Kevin’s guitar solo; two, it had Gareth’s guitar solo; three, it had an absolutely amazing vocal from Peter Jones. Four, it’s instantly recognizable as . . . oh, let’s just say it! It’s a bit Pink Floydish!
I’m glad you said it and not me!
We wanted something that the people would hear that song and go, “that’s quite nice; I can’t wait to hear the new Bardic Depths!” We needed something the people would pledge a pre-order on one song, and that was the song that we thought would do it. Because it had everything! It’s got great production; it’s a great tune. That was the reason we did it.
The alternative was gonna be “The Essence,” which is the pop one. But if we’d brought that one out, we might not have attracted as many prog fans as we had bringing out “The Burning Flame” first. I mean, we’re not denying that this album is diverse, OK? It’s got lots of elements to it, and not all of it is prog. But that’s not a bad thing!
But to hit our audience, a prog audience, we needed the most proggiest thing on there. Apart from a seven-or-eight minute wig-out thing, we’d decided we’d bring out “The Burning Flame” as the first single. And it’s done great! It’s had plenty of hits on YouTube; it’s getting decent radio play as well now. So, we’re really pleased with it.
Plans for another single before the release?
OK! We’ll just keep it there!
[Laughs] I’ve already mentioned it! [Laughs]
Ah, got it! Well, we’ll let people read between the lines, then. It’s pretty obvious, then.
Well, I hope so, yeah! “The Essence” is a great little tune. It is a bit poppy, but are so are Tears for Fears! I’m not saying it sounds like Tears for Fears, but it’s in that ballpark, where it’s prog but it’s pop at the same time. At the minute, “The Essence” is possibly gonna be the second single. Having said that, by the time we bring one out, we might change our minds!
Yeah, you’ve still got time. And that’s one of the things that I think is the strength of this album. I still love the debut, but it’s pretty straightforward in terms of narrative and in terms of the musical arc. This, as you say, it goes a lot more different directions; it’s more eclectic. And that’s part of the – well, it’s a serious topic, but you’re treating it seriously in a spirit of joy and play. And to me, that’s always the best thing you can do with anything serious; you give it all you’ve got.
At the end of the story, Brad’s brought in the element that she’s not allowed to commit suicide and so consequently, she goes back to where she came from. And she lives her life, but in a different type of mindset to how she did before. There’s a serious side to it; there’s a lot of joy in this album. And from the track “Returned” onwards, it had to be bouncy and upbeat. Because there is a lot of joy to it as well.
Let’s see. Oh, that was the question I was going to ask you! This album is dedicated to [Big Big Train’s late vocalist] David Longdon. Why?
Of course it had to be – it had to be. It had to be, didn’t it, yeah?
Can you elaborate on that a bit?
I can elaborate on that, yeah, of course! The band, The Bardic Depths, came together through the Big Big Train forum. They were our reason for becoming a group of musicians, and also for wanting to release it. And also, the friendships that have developed since then. I’ve met Gareth, I’ve met John William Francis. If I want to, I can send a message to Peter and just have a chat about nothing with him. That’s all come about because of our friendship and our love of Big Big Train. And the sadness that surrounded David’s death as well. It hit home to us that we’re only here for a certain amount of time and we’ve got to enjoy what we can while we’re here. And we’re grateful for the time that we’ve got, and the fact that we can come together and produce music. Because of that, totally, the album’s dedicated to David.
As he said something very similar when I interviewed him last July; we don’t have all the time in the world, we have this time. Well, I believe that you and the other folks in The Bardic Depths have used their time well when it comes to this album. I really enjoy it; I’m looking forward to buying multiple copies for my family and friends. And I do hope that the rest of the prog world gets to experience what you and everybody else has put together with Promises of Hope. And as I say, I’m delighted to have played a part in it!
Ah, you’re more than welcome. We’ve enjoyed having you on board; it’s been great fun!
Pre-order The Bardic Depths’ Promises of Hope from The BandWagon USA, (CDs for North America) Gravity Dream Music (CDs shipped worldwide) or Bandcamp (download only worldwide).
— Rick Krueger
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