Antonio DeSarno – Italy
Antonio – When did you begin to consider writing and recording such an ambitious series of albums or was the original idea on a smaller scale?
Stewart – While we were in the process of recording Skies Darken Cyrus and myself decided this would be our last album. Firstly, because Cyrus was moving to Australia later that year and secondly, we felt that we had taken Citizen Cain as far as it could go and we were in danger of starting to repeat ourselves musically and lyrically. As it turned out Cyrus returned from Oz a year later but we stuck to our decision and decided to pursue solo careers.My original idea was to do a concept album with a sci-fi/ fantasy theme but I had no idea what the story would be, until one day I was thinking about an idea I’d had for years. I’d always wanted to write and illustrate a kid’s storybook about my first ever lucid dream and I considered doing that while I was stuck between writing our last album and the new one, so I started to plan the storybook then, one day, it just hit me. There’s my story, my lucid dreams, starting with the subject matter of the storybook, my first lucid dream when i was 6 years old, and continuing through all the other dreaming experiences I’d had throughout my life. I quickly realised there was too much material for one album so decided it was going to have to be a double album and the main story was going to have to be more concise or it would just be too complex and confusing. Then during the writing process I decided to split it into two separate albums, part 1 and part 2, then a little further down the line I also found myself with a whole other story that would follow on from this one! So it was now a trilogy plus the storybook, which is called The Cupboard Of Fear, and was released alongside the album. So, yeh, from that small idea of a storybook came an epic trilogy!
A – I find some similarities with the concept albums of Ayreon and Anthony’s presence on the album reinforces this. Was this intentional on your part?S – I never intended to produce anything musically similar to Ayreon but I guess we are in a similar genre so there will be parts that are close in sound. What I did plan was to produce a rock opera in the style of Arjen’s work, recruiting guest vocalists to play different characters, having a solid story playing out over the course of the album (or three!) and giving it a sci-fi/ fantasy theme, so Arjen’s involvement was really a tribute to the fact that he is the god of rock operas I guess. His work is also the only thing of its kind I had heard since I was a child. I’d always loved Jeff Waynes War Of The Worlds which came out when I was 7 years old and I’d never heard anything like it, science fiction combined with great music. Then there was ELO’s Time which came out a few years later, another great sci-fi themed concept album which I’ve only revisited recently. It’s one of those albums that my brothers and I listened to over and over when we were kids then totally forgot about it. The great thing about rediscovering and listening to it after all those years is that the story, about a man who wakes up and finds himself way off in the future, has a few parts where he is reminiscing about the 1980’s which, is something I do now when I listen to that album! So, yeh, Arjen is up there with Jeff Wayne and ELO when it comes to my inspiration for doing this.A – In what way is the material on The Antechamber of being different to the work of Citizen Cain? Was this material at any point considered for Citizen Cain?S – No, the music was all written specifically for this album and the writing was a lot different from how we did it with Citizen Cain. I started off with the concept, finalised the story then started writing the lyrics. Only after splitting the story up into two, the main part for this album and the stories for part 2, did i start writing the music. This actually made the process a lot easier, I knew exactly where the music was going, what was coming next and where recurring themes etc should be placed. It also allowed me to match the music to the story, so if I was portraying a nightmare, it sounded like a nightmare, if the emotion was soaring with ecstasy then the music followed suite. I’d never worked this way before, it had always been music first, lyrics second with Citizen Cain. As far as the style of the music I don’t think it’s too much different from where I was going with C-Cain, I tend to write music that I’d like to hear myself so the type of material I write depends on my current musical taste although there’s always the classic prog roots that are at the heart of everything I come up with.
A – Describe the process of recording such a complex piece of work. Were there any moments you thought it couldn’t be done?
S – Once the music is finalised we start with the drum tracks, when those parts are complete it’s usually time to record the bass although it’s really dependent on who has what ready to go and when. While the guitars are being recorded I can convert all the midi instruments and soft synths onto audio tracks. That’s really a trick to save memory on my computer as I’ll find that once i have a couple of analogue emulators, a virtual orchestra and virtual choir loaded on my computer, it starts to act like a ZX81 on Valium. The last thing to be put down is the vocal tracks although with this album Arjen and Simone were recording independently at their own leisure so they often only had the finished drum and bass tracks to work with, everything else would be a rough mix on top of that. I was always confident that it would be completed mainly because the studio we use is in the house of our good friend Livvy (bass player in Phil’s prog metal band Sanity Falls) so we are never limited for time or worried about going over our budget.
A – How different is the present day Stewart Bell from the young musician of Serpents in Camouflage? How has your approach to music, as a listener, writer and musician changed over the years?
S – Well, 40 odd pounds heavier and a little more wrinkled for a start! When i was writing “Serpents..” I was very inexperienced to be honest. I would basically copy song structures and patterns, time signatures and changes from my favourite Marillion albums, plus I would use all the sounds etc that Mark Kelly used, or, at least, as close as I could get to his sounds. I’d often take a chord structure and overuse it by simply changing the time signature behind it which made some of those early songs sound very repetitive in my opinion. Once I’d started writing C-Cain’s second album I was heavily into Genesis and although there wasn’t so much copying of parts going on the influence is obvious (especially with the 25 minute title track on “Somewhere But Yesterday”!) plus new Tony Bank’s type sounds were finding their way into my compositions.
With the third album, “Raising The Stones” I was trying to find my own style and also I was starting to co-write with Cyrus, as he had now taken over the bass playing duties, so things changed quite a bit with that album, I still find some of it difficult to listen to, especially the insane relentless passages that defy logic and scale! Following on from that, “Playing Dead” saw things start to even out a bit and I was really finding my own style of writing and playing. I think I more or less nailed it by the time Skies Darken was written and, as i said earlier, while writing the new material for my solo project I more or less entered the “zone” and found that flow that was never quite there with the older material.
As a listener my taste has changed little. After being introduced to the classic and neo-prog band’s in my late teens I never really bothered much with new music until I discovered Spock’s Beard in the mid 90’s. Then I was introduced to prog metal when Phil joined the band in 2000 and it appealed to the early teenager in me. Back when i was around 13 yrs old and first getting into Marillion, I was also discovering bands like Iron Maiden, Vow Wow and Van Halen so I was quite glad to discover a style of music that brought that heavier side to the prog genre.
A – Do you ever hear any other musicians work and think ‘I wish I’d thought of that!’
S – Only in the way i mentioned earlier, I’d hear a keyboard sound or a nice chord progression and I’d try to recreate it but to be honest it was before I had any aspirations of my music going anywhere beyond my bedroom. A lot of the first album was written before I joined Citizen Cain, one part was a version of a Marillion song I had programmed into my first keyboard when I was around 15, it ended up becoming a big part of the Liquid Kings track on our debut album. I also went on a several year mission to find the classic moog widdly sound that Mark Kelly used and it wasn’t until i was 20 that I got myself a Roland SH 101 and finally managed to recreate that much sought after proggy lead sound (although to be honest I first heard it on Howard Jones New Song when I was 11 and loved it since then).
A – Or have you ever thought ‘why on Earth did they do that?’
S – I’ve listened to some of my own material and thought “why on Earth did I do that?!’’ Especially with our album Raising The Stones. There are some sections on there that are just insane. I’ve come to realise that writing music is an expression of my subconscious mind and an outlet for unresolved, unexpressed emotions but I honestly couldn’t tell you where some of those pieces of music were coming from! The deep, dark, unfathomable places in my mind?
A – Of your previous works which is the one you are most satisfied with? On the opposite side of the spectrum, which is the one you’re least satisfied with?
S – If we are counting the new solo album then, for me, that is the best thing I have done so far. Normally once an album is complete I’ll have spent so much time with it that I can’t stand it. It’ll often be at least a year before I can go back to it and enjoy it again. With the new album I can still listen to the whole thing as a finished piece and actually enjoy it more now than wheni was working on it. It’s definitely to do with the fact that every song is loaded with emotions and memories for me, there are songs that make me laugh, others that bring me to tears and in every section I can obviously relate to every single word that is being said. It might sound pompous, but for those reasons, this album may well be my favourite of all time.If we’re talking about the C-Cain stuff then ”Skies Darken” is my favourite and our debut album the least. Mainly for the reasons I mentioned earlier, I felt I’d found my feet with the writing by the time we produced ”Skies Darken” and with ”Serpents..” there were so many plagiarised pieces of music and compositional mistakes that are so indicative of the inexperienced young writer trying to sound like my favourite band that I was. It is a bit cringe-worthy at times.
A – Why is Cyrus not featured on the album? Is there anyone who was not willing to participate on the recording? Which were the greatest difficulties you faced in making the album?
S – I’d considered Cyrus for the main part but we both felt it would just be another Citizen Cain album if he were involved, it wouldn’t be different enough to be classed as a solo project especially with Phil, our guitarist being a part of it also. It would’ve been more like Citizen Cain featuring guest vocalists. The hardest role to fill was that of the Dream Girl. I had someone lined up for months but things fell through at the last minute due to a whirlwind decision on her part to leave the country and financial difficulties on my part to get it recorded before she left. I then had a lucky break and managed to get a very well known female vocalists in prog circles on board but, again things didn’t work out, not totally sure why in that case, just a change of heart at the last minute unfortunately. It turned out for the better to be honest as we discovered the very talented local singer Bekah Comrie. Besides, I started to realise funding was not going to be as easy to achieve as I’d first thought so the less the artist fees the better.This is the greatest difficulty in producing an album unfortunately, getting fans to be a part of your dream and willing to help you realise it. I wrongly assumed that I’d have the same support Citizen Cain has had in the past but I guess keyboard player solo albums are something people aren’t all that convinced about. I’ve never heard any of
Tony Bank’s or Mark Kelly’s solo stuff (I don’t even know if Mark Kelly has any solo stuff!) so I can understand where people are coming from. The difficulty now is letting people know that this is as good, if not better, than C-Cain and convincing them to buy it.A – Do you think touring and playing live would have changed the history of Citizen Cain? Do you miss playing live? What do you see as the future of the band? All of your albums have always revealed the title and thus theme of the successive one…S – Definitely! We may have made some money if we’d played live instead of it simply being an expensive hobby for all these years! In my opinion life as a musician is incomplete without the live experience and part of the reason for the large gap between Playing Dead and Skies Darken was our inability to achieve that, I didn’t really see the point in continuing if we were never going to play live, there’s no money in the music industry unless you’re really out there plugging your material or you get a lucky break with a decent label.
The future? Citizen Cain is over, Cyrus and I have decided that there’s nothing else for us to say with the band unfortunately. There is, however, the next 2 parts of The Antechamber trilogy to be completed over the next 2 years, that’s a huge workload but I’m on target! The next part is complete and only has to be recorded. The story and lyrics are all written for part 3 so it’s well on its way also. What happens beyond this trilogy depends on how successful it is, I really can’t justify the amount of time I spend on music anymore if I’m getting nothing in return for my work, I’ve done it for too long and there are things i’d like to do that require living above the breadline. I used
to get annoyed at it, thinking that i deserved a career in music but now I realise that all the guys who listen to us have to go out and do a hard day’s work to buy cds and I’ve had the luxury of doing this on at least a part-time basis for 20 plus years so I can’t complain. Very few of us get to make a good living doing something we love, it’s not a given and it’s not even down to hard work, it’s all about luck at the end of the day. Here’s hoping the next few years brings some my way 🙂