First off, Stevie, could you tell our readers for how long you have been playing guitar? Do you use a specific brand and/or effects?
Hey Wim, thanks for taking the time to talk to me about my new album, I really appreciate it. I got my first guitar for my thirteenth birthday after a few years of begging my parents for one. It was a very cheap acoustic guitar, but it was the best my parents could afford. They were afraid they'd spend all that money for an expensive (in their eyes) guitar and it would soon be discarded under my bed. But they were wrong, I took to the guitar with passion and determination. For the next number of years, I was rarely seen without a guitar. Pretty much from the beginning I was experimenting with tape recorders, writing songs, and trying to do demos. I’m a total gear nerd and love all the new technology, I recorded the album using a Line6 Helix, I’ve been really enjoying that recently and will be using it for some time to come. The guitars I used on the album are actually self builds, it’s a very satisfying feeling to play an instrument that you made yourself.
Was the harder spectrum of music an influence from the beginning?
Iron Maiden is the band I grew up with and will always have a big part of my musical heart. A big influence on my life when I was younger were the thrash bands, particularly early Metallica, Megadeth, Testament and so on. The rhythmic intensity and tight interplay between the guitars and drums on early thrash was just astonishing to my young ears. Then I began to discover Vai, Satriani, Malmsteen, all the guys from the shredder generation. And for many years I practiced scales, alternate picking and arpeggios etc. Because I thought for a long time, the path to success was to be as technically proficient as those guys. Inevitably, being into thrash and shredding I'd soon discover Dream Theater, a band that pulls all the separate things I liked in heavy music and blended them all together to make this new concept: Prog Metal. I've been pretty happy to describe myself as a prog metal guitarist ever since as I feel this genre, for me, is so diverse and challenging, yet at the same time very freeing.
Ironically though, it was through my love of Dream Theater that I finally gave up focusing all the time on guitar technique. I realized that I enjoyed listening to their ballads and slow burning epics far more than the flashy extended instrumental passages, and soon discovered that what fulfilled me most as a musician was playing the type of music Dream Theater play but cutting out the etude-like muso bits. Where a lot of Dream Theater's demographic is other musicians who check them out to be inspired and challenged (and I'm one of them) I try to imagine the audience I am looking for, are people who like the complexity of progressive music and the wide emotional pallet that prog songs cover, but don't really give a shit about drum patterns, time signatures, guitar technique and all that nerdy stuff that we musicians like.
Were or are you influenced by certain musicians or bands?
I've always been fascinated by musicians like Steve Vai and John Petrucci who are not just guitarists, they also write a lot of the songs and take a lead role producing and engineering in the studio. I've always thought of these three elements going hand in hand and for most of my life I've tried to devote just as much time to developing my production knowledge and skills, my song writing experience and my guitar playing. I've never considered these to be separate things, in my mind they combine to form a single path to a more complete musical expression. I've already mentioned my affinity for prog, thrash and shredder music, however I also have a profound love for all things Irish, particularly Irish folk music. Few things in life can give me the moving, hair raising emotion of a well sung Irish ballad, outside of metal this was kind of the sound track of my life, growing up in Ireland. There is always a part of me searching for a way to put the emotion I feel in Irish music into the progressive music that I write.
People might know you from the bands Sandstone and IronHeart, and you also teamed up with former Judas Priest Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens for a string of live gigs. When did you decide it was time to release a solo album, and why?
I never ever thought I would ever release a solo album, it is sort of against all the things I love about bands. My dream was always to be part of a band that stay together and make music together and form a unit that is larger than the sum of its parts, like all the great bands that we love. This was always my hope for Sandstone, and still is. But things have slowed down a lot in recent years for Sandstone and various members of the band find they have less time to commit to the band. As we all get older life becomes more complicated and I understand that and look forward to the time being right for Sandstone to get stuck back in. But I have a constant itch to create music and cannot remain idle. I'm always in my home studio making riffs or trying out new sounds. As my back catalogue of unreleased songs continued to grow, more and more friends started to encourage me to release something. I tentatively send this album to Sandstone's label; Limb Music and they loved it, so here it is.
What kind of songwriter are you? Do you write constantly throw ideas together to get a song, do you write song after song or do you work on different songs simultaneously?
I believe that a key to successful song writing is to be prolific, so I try to have a good work ethic and be as prolific as possible. It's all too easy to find excuses to put off facing the blank piece of paper, I just force myself to get on with it. I usually find that every time I do this I get something, whether it's a short section of drums or a full epic 10-minute opus. But I save all these ideas and gradually they develop into full songs, sometimes I rip songs up and use the chorus from one, the verse from another, the intro from another. Sometimes I'm really lucky and have one of those days were a really great song just seems to write itself and things go really fast. But most of the time I can't rely on this and have to put the time and effort into crafting the song and coaxing it to life, and sometimes I just hit a brick wall and decide to leave that idea I'm working on and come back to it, maybe next week, maybe next year. At any one time I may have dozens of songs that I'm trying to finish simultaneously. My friends and family know when I'm going through a creative patch, because I find my smile and am far easier to live with. Conjuring up a song from thin air is thrilling to me and makes me happy.
Are all the tracks on ‘Toy Empires’ new ones, or did you have songs or ideas lying around for a longer time waiting for this album?
Yes: some of these songs are older, and have been considered previously for Sandstone albums, for whatever reason Sandstone didn't release them, but I couldn't let it go, as I strongly believed in the songs. There are one or two tracks that I knew were going in a more progressive slant than Sandstone would ever want to release, and up until I decided to put this album together these songs may never have found a home. Then as I was tracking the album, all these ideas started flooding in, so a lot of the songs on the album are actually completely new and written during the tracking of the album. So, it's a mixture of old and new.
How long did it take you to record the album, was it done in one timeframe? Or did you work on it bit by bit?
It's hard to say, because the album has been brewing for a long time, I've been writing, rewriting, editing and tweaking stuff for a couple of years. But the intensity of work really ramped up towards the end and I'd say 90% of the album was finalized and tracked and mixed over the final couple of weeks before completion. I feel that this year I really made a breakthrough in production and finally got my music to sound the way I've always imagined and the tones of the individual instruments have improved dramatically. At the same time, I've been working very hard to get the vocal side of things up to scratch. I know that I'll never be the vocalist I'd like to be, but I hope listeners understand the solo nature of this album and hear the heart I put into it. When I felt that all these production and performance issues had been ironed out and a lot of the material was in place, or at least a musical direction was in place, the album came together very quickly after that.
Is there a specific meaning behind the album title ‘Toy Empires?
Since I first started playing the guitar I always wanted to get a band together like Iron Maiden, record an album, go on tour and take the world by storm. I've started many bands and failed many times, but still I keep doing it, I can't help myself. Sometimes, in my more cynical moments, I wonder what exactly it is I'm trying to achieve and why. So, I look back at these various bands I've formed, and the songs we made and the social media hype we created and the tours we played and I think do we just create a toy empire?
How did you get the vocal harmonies done in some of the songs?
I make no secret of my feeling that the vocals are maybe the weakest part of my album, although I do hope that the strength of the lyrics and the different sound of my voice make for a more interesting listening experience than if I had just got one of those generic great vocalists that seem to be on every prog metal album. I stacked the vocals, recording doubles and harmonies and more doubles and more harmonies until I felt the voice sounded strong enough to sit on top of a dense rock/metal mix. This is a recording technique I've heard on albums by bands like Queensrÿche. I always admired this sound and felt this technique of recording would help give a stronger impression for my voice.
Is there anyone around that you ask for advice regarding ideas and/or actual recordings? Perhaps to have a second opinion or perhaps to spot things you missed or overlooked?
I'm very lucky to have a tight group of musician friends, and they are all very accomplished and knowledgeable musicians in their own rights. We love to get together regularly and drink beer and talk about all nerdy music stuff that our wives find infuriatingly boring. Chords, harmony, guitar tones, techniques and new technology. These guys are my most critical audience, they'll pick apart everything I do and force me to try harder. By the time my ideas get past them and out to the world they have been honed to the point of being bullet proof. I also like to run things past my wife who has a really great non-musician perspective and can tell straight away whether an idea has feeling.
Now you released ‘Toy Empires’, have you fulfilled your mission to let the world in on what you are capable of and want to share? Or do you think there will be a follow up?
I currently have no plans for a follow up, but if this album does well enough to convince the label that a follow up could be feasible and if there is a perceived interest from fans, then I will definitely have the material to do it. That would be great.
If you were asked to describe what you stand for musically in five words, what would these words be?
Passionate, introspective, melodic, heavy, poetry.
What steps are next for you? Back to the Sandstone camp or are you going to tour and promote your album?
That's up to Sandstone, If and when the time is right we'll hit the stage again with a new album, in the meantime I'll stay busy with this, I'm trying to get some promo videos done and looking into possibilities for taking this out live.
Thanks for your time Stevie. Is there anything you would like to share with our readers that has not been covered by the above questions?
Thanks for the interesting questions, anyone interested in ‘Toy Empires’ can find out more at my homepage. Check the album out via Spotify, iTunes, Torrents etc that's all cool. Throw me a message on Facebook, let me know what you think. But even cooler, you can support what I'm doing by buying the album, that's how we can all do our bit to keep the music we love alive.