Salem Hill: On the way to the top !

DURP - eZine from the progressive ocean

Interview

Salem Hill - On the way to the top!

I think the new record was running a little bit behind schedule. Can you tell me something of the process of creating the new record? Were there any problems or went everything well?

Carl: It was simply a matter of underestimating how long it would take. On all of our previous albums, the total recording time was about five months. For this one, we rehearsed most of the new material for about 3 months, and then began recording. We knew it would take a little longer as we recorded the songs one at a time, whereas we usually record the drums for all the songs at once, then add the bass guitar, and so on. But, because this was not a concept album, and we wanted different instrument timbres on each song, we decided to record everything one song at a time. Also, we all live long distances from each other and just getting together was at times difficult. Once we had finished with the audio, our replicators had a tremendously difficult time getting the graphics the way we wanted them. Just to get that straightened out took about a month and a half.

Mike D: The only problems from my end were the usual scheduling hassles - the studio is over an hour from my house, so just finding time to get there and work was my only difficulty. I understand that there were a lot of other delays, though.

Mike A: It wasn't a matter of problems so much as we had set certain standards for this CD, and we were not willing to settle for less; The use of a real pipe organ, a boy's choir, having the privilege of David Ragsdale's participation, these things are time consuming, but ultimately worth the wait.

Kevin: "A little bit behind schedule" is probably an understatement. Each project seems to take longer than the previous one. In part, this recording took longer because of continuing studio modifications, i.e., new console, outboard gear, etc., that took time to understand. The biggest reason for the delay was our individual schedules. All of us have day jobs. Most of us have families to support. Sessions had to be worked around available time slots. Personally, this is probably the most difficult part of the Salem Hill legacy. We have never been able to devote full-time energy to just writing and performing. If things were as they should be, I believe our songs and live performance would be a force to be reckoned with. As far as the process of recording, drums go first. Sections and tempos are already established via computer. After that, Patrick lays down his bass tracks. Then, it could go any number of different directions. Much of the music is recorded in midi, so sounds can be determined at a later date. As much as we like to present a full palette of sonorities, you can see how this process could take a long time to accomplish in small chunks of available time. Were there any problems? It depends on who you talk to, I guess. How much time do you have?

What about the decision to involve a new band member?

Carl: We brought Michael Ayers on board in the summer of 1998 simply because I was tired of playing keyboards 80% of the time. Also, Michael Dearing only plays live with us occasionally because he is contracted with another band, so we needed an extra pair of hands.

Mike D: Bad call - he REALLY sucks, and has a bad attitude to boot.

Mike A: Worked for me....

Kevin: Salem Hill has changed configurations more than once. Much of our work and performance was done as a 3-piece band. There was good and bad to this. The good part was more freedom to play out and fill the holes. The bad part was our limited technical ability to play out and fill the holes. Only so much can be done by one person in a live situation. We faced the dilemma of whether to use sequenced tracks in live performance, or just leave them out, completely. With Michael Ayers, that problem was sufficiently laid to rest, since he can do a half dozen things at once. I actually get exhausted watching him move from keyboard to keyboard, patch to patch. It's a very intricate setup. I would imagine that it also made it easier for Carl to write music, free from any performance constraints.

The new record is much more in the prog style than the records before. A natural development or more intention?

Carl: We do what we do. Speaking of my four contributions, I don't think they're intentionally more proggie. In fact, "Riding the Fence" and "We Don't Know" are just rock songs to me, and "The Last Enemy" would fit on either of our last two albums. As for the "Sweet Hope Suite", I did intentionally try and express myself more from the musical side, whereas SH usually balances it's expression between music and lyric. All that being said, I don't necessarily think the album is any more progressive than our last two. Different maybe, but not more progressive.

Mike D: I don't know if I agree with that assessment or not. We've always had development sections in songs, "weightier" subject matter, etc.. We haven't ever attempted a song as long as the Suite, so maybe that's what you're referring to. I think that one came out really well. Generally, though, this album is a LOT thicker in texture (TOO thick), and I hope we will streamline in the future.

Mike A: I'd have to say a natural development of our style; We certainly didn't set out to create a particular style or sound. Much of it is a result of having 3 very different writers in the band.

Kevin: I don't know. I will tell you that the Salem Hill I have always dreamed of has been a marriage of the classical and rock elements. I would love to see each project become more progressive in its complexity on every level. It is what I admire most about classical composers. Maybe it's just me, but I think very few rock bands who showed promise in that direction have followed this path to its proper conclusion. They seem to go from the intricate early works to the obtuse. Do they just get tired, bored, or just sell out to the pressure of pop culture demands? What I like most about this project is the Sweet Hope Suite. It is the most difficult and brilliant work to date for this band.

How do you think about retro influences in your music?

Carl: I don't. I love the Beatles and I love a lot of Seventies prog, but the fact of the matter is that I write what I write and record the sounds I think will best express what I've written.

Mike D: I don't think about it. I can hear some things that might remind people of other stuff, but generally we're frighteningly original, don't you think?

Mike A: They are definitely there; Most progressive rock bands are very influenced by the original founders, Yes, ELP, Genesis, and on back to the patriarchs, the Beatles. In my case, as a keyboard player, I make extensive use of the warmer analog sounds, the Moog, Oberheim, and mellotron influences.

What about the reactions of the fans especially concerning this development in style?

Carl: It's been interesting to me. The main criticisms I read concerning the last two albums had to do with them being "too emotional" and too "wordy." Yet, I think most of our fans miss that on this album. At the same time, I doubt we won over any progholes either.

Mike D: The only reviews I've seen were generally positive & they seem to have the same criticisms of the record that I do.

Mike A: They seem to be responding very well, although I think they were a little taken back at first with the shorter structures of the songs, and the extreme differences caused by NEG not being a concept album.

Kevin: All I can say in response to this question is that we have always hoped to reach a wider audience by being honest with ourselves and our listeners with each project. I'm not sure what the overall reaction is with NEG. From what I have read, so far, the comments, positive and negative, seem to be fairly accurate. Michael Dearing once said something that sticks in my head. In paraphrase, an album (CD) is just a representation of where you are musically, emotionally, intellectually, at that time in your life. For better or worse, that's what NEG is to me.

Can you give me some liner notes to the songs of your record?

Carl: "Riding the Fence" is a song about the cowardice of not making a choice. Musically, I wanted to convey how quickly things can fly away from you if you're just sitting on the sidelines watching life go by. "The Last Enemy" is a song about triumphing over death. "We Don't Know" is a study in relationships-specifically how imperfect our understanding of love is. "Sweet Hope Suite" lyrically is about a spiritual search--a spark that as a man of faith I believe God puts into our hearts. Musically, the fluttering guitar intro represents that spark. It recurs throughout the piece. I wanted the piece to be Mahlerian in scope: big with sweeping emotion. Yet, even after a lengthy search, the questions in the piece only serve to raise more questions.

Mike A: See our web site, and "Proghole's Guide To NEG".

Kevin: Without getting into specific songs, I will tell you my goal for every song we record. Though it doesn't always work, I want my tracks to be interesting enough that they could stand on their own as a creative entity. I like to hear some development in complexity of grooves and fills. And if I can come up with an unusual pattern, or drum break, at least once in each song - something I can kind of look forward to -- then I'm happy. With the SHS, being able to incorporate melodic percussion to that extent was a dream come true. I would love to do more of that.

What about the little hidden track?

Carl: Kevin wrote it. I knew that the entire album was one bombastic song after another, culminating in a 28 minute long bombast. I thought it would be quite funny to record Kevin's little surf tune and hide it at the end. It still makes me laugh when I hear it.

Mike D: It's a breath of fresh air after an hour + of relative intensity. Refer to "Her Majesty" at the end of "Abbey Road".

Mike A: That was so much fun to record, and I still laugh when I hear it.

Kevin: I wrote it to be used as an on-hold advertising spot for a business I worked with. It was a project for a recording class I was taking at Belmont University. When Carl heard it, the wheels started turning...

Tell me something about the lyrics! Is "Not Everybody's Gold" again an concept record?

Carl: No, every song stands on its own. I think there's a great variety of thought on this record lyrically.

Mike A: Absolutely not. Again, complete explanations are in the Proghole's Guide.

Kevin: The lyrics for most Salem Hill songs stand on their own. I think that they often outshine the music and the performance. It is what Salem Hill music is all about - the spirit in man, with its hopes and dreams, and with all its flaws. NEG is no different. I'm still trying to digest the words to "January".

What about the cover artwork? What about the idea to use pics of several people? What about the charakters in the four charakters in the booklet?

Carl: The cover is a painting by my brother, William Neagle. I told him the title of the album and all the different meanings one could draw from it. The album has several different takes. First of all, of all the characters on the painting, not all of them are gold-"Not Everybody's Gold." Also, the miner and the little boy have been caught stealing the gold from the wall. It's "Not Everybody's Gold." We also knew the album would not please everyone-"Not Everybody's Gold". I could go on. All the faces are either famous characters that we wanted to use, or people close to us. The characters on the tray and insert are personifications of each song.

Mike D: Unlike the reviewers on the Dutch Progressive Rock Page, I think the cover's great. The characters are references to the songs' content.

Mike A: All of that originated under the masterful hand of Bill Neagle, Carl's brother, and an incredibly talented artist. The characters in the fold-out obviously represent the subject matter of the songs, and Bill went to great trouble to assemble photos and drawings of band members, friends, and famous historical figures for the cover.

Kevin: I think the idea was to pay tribute to those who have been supportive of our efforts over the years. They all deserve to be recognized for their kindness and encouragement to us.

Are there differences between the US and Cyclops version (bonus trax?)

Carl: The artwork in their pressing is not of the same quality as ours. Otherwise, there is no difference.

Mike A: That's something I'd rather not go in to, but theoretically, the versions are the same.

You work again with David Ragsdale as guest musician. How did you came in touch?

Carl: David and I met in 1997 when our manager, MB Sheppard, contacted David about headlining ProgDay97. We were playing also, and David needed a band. MB "volunteered" me to play guitar for him, and I became part of his group. Since then, we've struck up a wonderful friendship. We see music and the music business the same way. I asked him to play on the new record and he agreed.

Mike D: I'm sure someone else has answered this, but we met when he agreed to play with us at Prog Day '97. His band was all-instrumental, so Peter Renfro asked if we'd mind doing a couple of Kansas tunes with him at the show. Of course we agreed to do it - how often do you get to do something like that? We've kept in touch since then - he's on both the Robbery & the new album and he asked Carl & I to sing on his next album, which I am looking forward to.

What about your live activities in the last year?

Carl: We've played out quite a bit in our area. We just headlined ProgDay2000 in North Carolina. It's fun to play live-especially to see the faces of people after we've finished playing a 28 minute piece of music.

Mike D: I personally played well over 250 shows in the last year - unfortunately, only one of them was with Salem Hill.

Mike A: Several shows in Nashville, a CD release party, and ProgDay 2000.

Kevin: Salem Hill could be an awesome live act if it had the opportunity to perform on a regular basis. We usually get to perform a few or more with each CD. This is a travesty, in my opinion. Catatonia has never been performed in its entirety. ROM was performed once from beginning to end. It's the nature of where we live and opportunities afforded to us. We also seem to be a difficult band to work with in a live setting - not because we are difficult people to work with, but when sound men see the enormous amount of equipment we use, and all the vocal mic configurations, since we all sing lead and background, it becomes a nightmare on both parts. Poor sound checks, horrible monitor mixes, and gremlins from every piece of gear you could think of, have been the order of the day in an average Salem Hill performance. This is not bitter or sarcastic, but factual accounts, right up to the last performance.

How does the songwriting work in the band?

Carl: It's pretty isolated. There is no collaboration in the song writing phase. The only time we work together on the songs is in their arrangements. Actually, Kevin is probably the unsung hero in song arranging in Salem Hill.

Mike D: Does anyone have any songs? I submitted a tape of stuff for this record, but none of it really fit with rest of the material we already had - which I was the first to admit, by the way. Hopefully that will change in the future, but the song quality comes before the ego ("I wrote it, therefore we have to do it"), or at least it's supposed to, so we'll see what happens.

What do you think about projects like the DURP sampler - you have some costs, but there are no guaranties for any success...

Carl: You just have to take chances. It's all like that. We contributed to a Klaatu tribute album a couple years back and were completely embarrassed by the poor quality of the other bands, the artwork, the whole presentation the record label made. But it's a risk you have to take. The DURP sampler was first class in every aspect and that alone makes it worth it.

Will you present the new material during a tour or is the situation for a band like Salem Hill still like move from single gig to single gig?

Carl: We probably could do a tour, but right now in the US there is no interest for that. We do gig to gig in our own area.

Mike D: At this rate, we'll celebrate our 100th gig somewhere in the year 2525. None of us has the time / money to lose by going out and playing clubs with six people in them, so we generally play when / if an important gig comes up (our two Prog Day appearances, etc.). If one of those doesn't present itself, we probably won't be performing anytime soon.

Mike A: Gig by gig, unless you want to book us for a European tour......

Is there a most important event in the history of the band?

Carl: I can't really think of one. Hooking up with MB [Sheppard] certainly would rank up there, tho. He kind of found us on the internet and got the message out.

Mike D: I've said this in other interviews, but for me the high point so far is Prog Day '97. We got the call for the aforementioned important gig and managed to get ourselves together enough to do a really good job there. Having David there was the icing on what was already a pretty tasty cake.

Kevin: For me, no. It has been a series of events in the individual lives of each member. I will say that the advent of the internet has done more to help us in reaching an audience than anything we have ever tried. I'm sure many other bands would agree with me on this.

What about your success in different countries?

Carl: Actually, we do better in Europe, Japan and other countries that we do here. There isn't much of an interest in prog here in our area-I'm not sure there's a decent sized interest anywhere in the US.

Mike D: We'll take success anywhere we can get it.

Kevin: Thanks to the internet, and those who participated in this venue, the other side of the world has been the most appreciative of our music. Thank you.

Finally some words about your future plans?

Carl: Basically, we're in a "wait and see" holding pattern right now. If NEG continues to do as well as it is now, who knows? I'd like to think that there are motivating reasons for continuing to record and release records. At this point, I personally look for these reasons to come from outside Salem Hill.

Mike D: My only plan is to have a future - a nice long one.

Mike A: Carl and I are both working on solo albums.

Kevin: Much of the future of Salem Hill depends on the success of NEG.


© 12/2000 Renald Mienert
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