Progarchy - Dan MacDonald Interview
First a Prog question.
What do ‘Elephants’ [large mammals of the family Elephantidae and the order Proboscidea. Two species are traditionally recognised, the African elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) – Wikipedia] and ‘Scotland [(/ˈskɒt.lənd/; Scots: [ˈskɔt.lənd]; Scottish Gaelic: Alba [ˈal̪ˠapə] is a country that is part of the United Kingdom and covers the northern third of the island of Great Britain. It shares a border with England to the south, and is otherwise surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, with the North Sea to the east and the North Channel and Irish Sea to the south-west. In addition to the mainland, the country is made up of more than 790 islands including the Northern Isles and the Hebrides – Wikipedia] have in common?
That’s it. That’s all I’ve got, but for some reason it works. Put both of them together and you getElephants of Scotland, a Progressive Rock band who have come out of Vermont, USA back in 2010 and already have two solid albums under their kilt, I mean belt (maybe it’s a zoological/visual thing, like ‘A Flock Of Seagulls’ or ‘Tygers of Pan Tang’). This four-piece (well actually, they see themselves as a five-piece ensemble as they also openly recognise Greg Skillman’s contribution to the project as one of their main lyricists) have recently released a DVD/CD (Good Morning, Gettysburg – Live at Rosfest 2014).
I have to be up front here and say, although I’ve heard of Elephants of Scotland I really hadn’t listened to any of their music before. A lot of friends and acquaintances on various Facebook Prog fan pages had favourably recommended them over the years, but for whatever reason at the time I’d never followed up to hear for myself how good they really are. I’m putting it down to Prog overload at some of these moments when I was doing my online radio show and flooded with so many albums. “Snooze you lose,” as they say. I sure wish I had taken their advice to give them a listen to as there is a lot of good stuff to pick up on these tracks starting with their first album, Home Away From Homeback in 2013.
But before that, just a little history on their lineup so far.
They actually started off as a three-piece band back in 2010; remnants of an 80’s cover band, Hot Neon Magic where Keyboard player, Adam Rabin and drummer Ornan McLean also wanted to move into the area of Progressive Rock. Ornan already played in a fusion band and they found another kindred spirit with guitarist, Corey Cranston. Adam also filled in the bass parts and they performed a few shows with that lineup. With Corey leaving soon after they were able to bring on board their old Hot Neon Magic guitarist John Whyte. Though they were quite comfortable as a 3 piece band they did take note of a local ad by a bass player looking for a band. The chemistry was great for all concerned and Dan MacDonald joined Elephants of Scotland. They spent the next couple of years working and fine-tuning their songs as well as bonding as a tight unit to be able to play live and in early 2013 put out their first album, Home Away From Home.
And if you didn’t know anything about Elephants of Scotland before, just listening to the intro of the first track, ‘Geography’ on Home Away From Home would soon tell you how big a fan they are of Rush music. I’m not going to say they sound like any song by Rush but there is that, on first impressions, Rush familiarity with the Neil Peart tom roll and hi-hat pattern as well as familiar upfront bass work and almost the Geddy low vocal style. But it’s not like a Rush tractor beam pulling you in. This band is strong enough on their own merits to appreciate what they bring to Progressive Rock as an individual band. In other words, they have what it takes to stand out with not only a cool band name. I just love the crisp 80’s keyboard sounds infused where the other members of the band allow Adam the room to include some excellent solos with moog and other familiar synthesizer signature bites throughout.
Just listen to the instrumental track ‘Endless (pt. 1)’ from their second album, Execute and Breathewhere lead guitar (including familiar intermittent Rush riffs) interplays with solid analogue-(Wakeman)type monophonic solo moves balanced around both bass and drum. And the key word here is “balanced.” There is an incredible amount of musicianship here on display within their two albums it really does make each listening experience refreshing as you pick up individual performances on each track.
What is great news is that Elephants of Scotland have released a special CD & DVD package around their performance at ROSfest last year where they received a resounding standing ovation. Their website advises “the entire set shot in High Definition and mixed from the 24-bit digital multitrack recording captured this powerful and energetic set from Vermont’s own progressive rockers.”
I got to fire away a few questions about the band and their projects to EoS’s bass player and co-vocalist/songwriter, Dan MacDonald which he kindly responded to Progarchy regarding the band and their albums and of himself.
PROGARCHY:: On the first track of ‘A Different Machine’ from your latest album, Execute and Breathe it shows that three of you (Adam Rabin, Dan MacDonald, Greg Skillman) wrote the lyrics. What was the process you all used to get this song to completion, lyrically speaking?
DAN: I had come up with the concept and title of the song. Adam then discussed it with Greg whom in turn came up with a few of the choruses. Adam wrote the rest-the verses and bridge. I then tweaked the lines to suit my delivery.
PROGARCHY:: Is there a story behind ‘A Difference Machine’? Is it based on any Science Fiction book or film. or rather some type of metaphor for how we’re turning into automatons perhaps?
DAN: It’s not based on any book or film I’m aware of. For quite some time It had been on my mind how we are all so programmed (or so it seems), by technology. iPhones, texting, Internet etc. Humans who use the hand devices of everyday lives are walking machines themselves, A Different (kind of) Machine. Humans get so tuned into the device in the palm of their hand instead of what is right in front of them. Everyone wants the latest upgrades, they want to fly. To sum it up, it’s basically my disgust with the lack of human interaction these days, and I myself have succumbed to that world too.
PROGARCHY:: Did you provide any lead vocals on Execute and Breathe like you did on the previous album with ‘Home Away From Home?’ (who did the vocals for ‘Boxless’?)
DAN: The lead vocals for A Different Machine and Endless Part 2 were sung by me. Lead vocals on Boxless were sung by Adam.
PROGARCHY:: I kind of pick up a vibe listening to Elephants of Scotland that your heads are more in the 80’s rather than the 70’s Prog movement. I might be way off base there but there seems to be a New Wave music approach to some of the songs as ‘The Other Room.’ The type of things Rush and Eloy were putting out back then.
DAN: Yeah, I get that too. We were definitely kids of the 80’s. So that may be where the new wavish sound you hear comes from, it’s ingrained in us most likely. I think when we all began listening to prog we were turned on to all the big prog names like the Genesis, Yes, Supertramp, Rush, Kansas. I think Adam had a deeper history with 70’s prog than most of us. Gentle Giant to name one… so many more. Lefty has a broad taste in music from 70’s to present day. I know Queen is one band he mentions often how great the songwriting was with them. However, I know Ornan and myself listened to more jazzy, prog like musicians and groups such as Pat Matheny, Stanley Clarke, Bill Bruford, Al Dimeola, Steely Dan, and Chicago. That’s why I believe he and I gel so well as a rhythm section. The mix of background all four of us share musically really makes things interesting in my opinion. I have been living under a rock for many years. I am only now discovering so many amazing prog bands that exist out there. So I’m enjoying this new awakening very much. I must admit I’ve never heard of Eloy. Although, I am listening to them right now. Thanks for turning me on to a new band Paul!
PROGARCHY:: You must have a very strong fan base in Canada? ;-)
DAN: We don’t have a strong fan base in any particular country, although I will say we have sold our CD’s all over the Earth. More recently Australians are on to us. It’s incredibly humbling. We definitely are trying to break into the Canadian music scene. We are only 1.5 hours from Montreal and 3.5 from Quebec City. We need to elephantize them! We have two shows coming up in Canada. April 25th in Montreal during Marillion Weekend and May 15th in Quebec City at The Terra Incognita Festival. Maybe we’ll then begin to build a fan base of sorts. :-)
PROGARCHY:: You are obviously very tight as individual musicians and it shows in your playing and recordings, very strong indeed. A number of current bands have also included the odd guest or two from other bands they’ve admired so much from the past such as Yes members and Pink Floyd recently (Dave Krezner’s latest album comes to mind). How about Elephants of Scotland? Do you all harbor a secret wish list of artists you’d like to have onboard for a track or two?
DAN: Thank you for those kind words. We work hard. That’s something we’ve never discussed. Maybe someday.
PROGARCHY:: With the pending release of your Live concert DVD “Good Morning, Gettysburg – Live at Rosfest 2014” – what made that particular concert special for you and what can new fans expect?
(Elephants of Scotland “A Different Machine” – ROSfest 2014)
DAN: ROSFEST was special in so many ways. It was and is the best known prog festival in the USA. So that in itself and asked to perform as an unknown band at ROSFEST was huge. For myself, it was the largest venue and event I had ever played. It was surreal. I barely remember being on stage at all. There are only a handful of moments I can recall from those 90 minutes on stage. I met so many fantastic musicians and people there. Many I keep in touch with today. A very well run, first class, cool, top notch, classy laid back festival. What also made it special was the work we all put into getting there and preparing for the show. We put together an entire album including recording and distribution in under one year. We needed too. We didn’t have enough songs to fill a 90 minute set! Those months we spent writing and rehearsing, then recording (ourselves), really tightened us up as a band and didn’t hurt our chops either.
Fans can expect some more live performances and new music as well. We’re writing and rehearsing new songs right now. We’ve already talked about a third album. No release date set. We are going to try and develop our harmonies a bit more over the next year. We’re not under any pressure or time frame this time around so I believe our sound will have more time to develop and melt into a truly original sound from the ground up. And, our new LIVE DVD/CD set from ROSFEST is available now!
PROGARCHY:: Regarding yourself – what made you pick up the bass?
DAN: I tripped over one once, then HAD to pick it up. Ha-ha! Seriously, on a large scale it was definitely Geddy Lee and Rush. But there was a bass player who lived on my street growing up. Mike Marrs was his name. He, Tony Lee, Kevin Sherry and John Osborn would play in a garage across from my home. I’d sit outside in the driveway and tune in on the bass. Then one day I went to Mikes house while he was sitting down on the floor in front of the turntable learning Cinderella Man (Rush). And I was just sitting there in awe. He then asked if I wanted to play his bass. I remember how HUGE the strings and neck felt. Mike was a patient guy and asked if I’d like to learn the main bass riff to In The End by Rush. So, I guess that’s really what made me pick up the bass. To learn that riff.
PROGARCHY:: Are you a trained musician?
DAN: Hardly. I grew up learning by ear. I’d sit in my room afterschool for hours just trying to learn songs. I did take lessons for about a month before I said screw this. I did learn the notes on the bass, major scales and how to read a little. Jammed in a highschool with Al Miller, Joe D’elia and Greg Athenian for a few years in highschool. They were all GREAT players. Joe would turn me on to so many bands back then as well. I played in our highschool Jazz Band. The only formal training environment I had was 1 year at Berklee College of Music. Learned a ton of theory which helped me get over the roadblock I had been experiencing for many years. By roadblock I simply believe, one can only get so far on your own without music theory. It helps me to this day in applying theory to my bass lines and helping in the writing process.
PROGARCHY:: How many bass guitars do you have and what is your favorite and why?
DAN: I have two. Ibanez Soundgear from 1989 and Fender GL Jazz Bass. The Fender is my favorite. I love the feel of the neck and the sound it creates when you use your fingers, or slap down on it, bang it around or whatever. My Sansamp DI helps with my sound too. I haven’t played the Ibanez since purchasing the Fender in 2010.
PROGARCHY:: As a Bass player who are your greatest influences? For instance, with the intro to ‘A Difference Machine’ first thoughts are, I pick up an almost Billy Sherwood approach here.
DAN: you remember when I mentioned before that I’ve been living under a rock? Um, I’ll probably get some shit for this but I’ve never heard of Billy Sherwood. Or, I’ve probably heard him but did not know it was him. Make any sense?
My influences are definitely from the Squire and Lee. To a lesser degree Stanley Clarke. I was really into funk for a while. Occasionally at rehearsals I’ll throw some funky, plunky riff in and Adam looks over at me like, what? I have included some funky stuff in our songs, ‘Geograph’ comes to mind.
PROGARCHY:: Sting gave a good well thought out answer in an interview where he was asked about what inspired him to go out and find new bass lines. He responded with, “Everything you listen to, you learn from, yes. You absorb, you learn, you steal. And it comes out in a different way, once the ideas have come through you. I couldn’t give you an example, but you always learn about bass lines listening to Johann Sebastian Bach.”
You’re all unashamedly Rush fans which really shows in a lot of your tracks in both albums. Is that a conscious effort on your part or just something that is now part of you all where certain songs of yours give fairly strong references to various Rush albums and sounds?
DAN: I think Sting was correct. Our current sound is not a conscious effort to sound like anyone. Coincidentally, we are all Rush geeks and have been most our lives. It is definitely a part of us. I strongly believe influences are in everyone’s playing. I don’t think you can really prevent that from happening. If we’re compared to Rush, hey that’s not a bad thing right? It’s an honor to be mentioned in the same sentence with Rush. Our sound will inevitably drift into its own. I have total confidence in this and I look forward to it.
PROGARCHY:: You’ve also stated you walked away from the bass for 12 years. Why was that and what inspired you pick it up again?
DAN: Yes this was true. In my “previous” life, I was somewhat coerced into pursuing a different way of living my life and to drop that “crazy dream and get a real job”. When that all ended I was once again inspired and able to be myself. Never again will I let myself down. Music, bass playing is in my soul. I actually picked up the bass a few times between my re-awakening and 2008 only to feel very discouraged because I had lost my ability to play. Or so I thought. What did I expect really? Twelve fricken years without playing, yea…that will do that! In 2008 while away from home and training for my job, alone in a hotel room for 3 months I got itchy to play. I went to a pawn shop, bought a halfway decent cheap bass and small practice amp. That was really when I began playing again and moving forward from where I was on the bass 12 years prior. I was inspired once again!
PROGARCHY:: Tell us how you got the gig with Elephants of Scotland? Were you headhunted or found a Wanted ad in an edition of Guitar and Bass?
DAN: I had placed an ad locally on Craigslist. Bass player available for rock cover band blah blah. I just wanted to play. It was up for only a few days when I received a call from Adam. He said, I’m not sure if this is what you’re looking for but we’re forming an original progressive rock band. My interest was immediate yet, hesitant. I knew being in an original band took huge commitment and time. Then I thought, original prog band in Vermont? No way? I asked Adam to send me some audio and video in which he did right away. I was impressed. At that time they did not have a bassist. We talked some more and found we had common interests in music. From what I could see and hear on the music Adam sent me, Ornan was a monster drummer and I HAD to play with that guy too! He sent me some sheet music (Adam style), and I totally absorbed myself in learning the songs. I showed up to rehearse with them and met Lefty (John Whyte). He had also just joined forces with Adam and Ornan in Elephants of Scotland. So the two originators of EoS (Adam and Ornan), and the two new guys. We all clicked. It’s one of those moments you read about. And, here I am today! Totally diggin’ what is happening in this band and the new friendships I’ve made with three incredible dudes.
PROGARCHY:: What sort of Prog do you like to listen to?
DAN: I will always listen to my favorites. The older Rush (Moving Pictures and back). The only post Moving Pictures album I really listen to is Snakes and Arrows. In my opinion it was the best album they’ve put out in years. Love to listen to Kansas (Steve Walsh era), and older Genesis. More recently I’ve been hugely into Spock’s Beard. And remember, I’ve been living under a rock and only heard about these guys a year or so ago. I know…..I know..
Adam has turned me onto prog I’ve never heard. More recently Gentle Giant! There are some local New England Prog bands I’m really diggin’ too. Circuline comes to mind. There is a Prog internet station called THE HOUSE OF PROG. I listen to them frequently, especially THE PROG DOCTOR on Friday nights. I’ve heard so many great prog bands from all over the world listening to his show. He (The Prog Doctor), along with the owner of the station Rick Henry actually discovered us and recommended us to George Rolden, the organizer of ROSFEST.
PROGARCHY:: What one song out of your albums do the band like playing live and getting a good crowd reaction?
DAN: ‘Starboard.’ Off our Home Away From Home album. That song is a 10 minute kick ass ride!
PROGARCHY:: Does the band play any covers at all? (Rush, Yes, Marillion…?) In other words do you showcase any Rush favorites for fans that can relate to both bands?
DAN: Not currently. We are focusing on our original music. In the past we’ve performed Subdivisions and Red Barchetta. More recently Give Blood by Pete Townsend.
PROGARCHY:: Home Away From Home’s album cover almost pays a nod and a wink homage to Roger Dean’s cover for Yes’s ‘Fragile’ with the planet and celestial ship, IMO. Is the band very conscious of its Prog roots to the 70’s groups of old such as Rush and Yes?
DAN: I suppose we are conscious (or subconscious), of our roots. Nothing is deliberate with our music or artwork album design. Well, except to agree on the end results of both.
PROGARCHY:: Is it easy or difficult in this new millennium to make a living in Prog Music? I mean you want to write and record as well as play and yet there is all the other parts of it just as important to promote yourself and with social networking be closer to your fan base and get active with that. A lot of time and effort goes into all of this – is it a problem for the band to compete with other bands in a relatively smaller market than say mainstream?
DAN: I believe it is difficult to make a living in Prog Music, these days. Especially when you’re an independent unsponsored band such as Elephants of Scotland. Although, we’ve come to the realization that we probably will never make a living at this. So, we keep our day job, our families and better halves happy too. The older prog giants and that way of life just doesn’t happen anymore.
I’ve spent countless hours networking to the best of my ability trying to get our name and music out there. The internet is a HUGE resource, especially Facebook believe it or not. It doesn’t seem to be a problem competing with other bands in a smaller market. Especially other prog bands. What I have found is a teamwork attitude from other prog bands. Working together to host a gig in each other’s town makes for a dynamite bill for a night. And if it goes well, we can continue to work and book together. It’s this teamwork ethic I find refreshing and certainly helpful. We proggers need to help each other out. We know there are prog fans out there, still out there. What’s tough is getting all the old farts (like myself), out to a venue to see a band. We’ve become comfortable watching from home while in our nice Lazy Boy recliners and big screen TV’s, right? On the other hand, some clubs (for fear of not bringing in enough patrons for a night), will not put up a prog band on a weekend night. Weekends are where maybe the old prog farts may be more inclined (not reclined, get it? Ha!), to go out for a few hours to catch a local prog band. It’s tough to find those venues. They’re out there, just tough to find. At least in our neck of the woods.
PROGARCHY:: What are your plans for 2015 as a band?
DAN: In between our day jobs and families we’ll write, rehearse, perform and try to branch out a bit. Hopefully perform in areas or states that appreciate prog. We would enjoy performing as an opening act for a bigger name band touring through the New England area. We have some bands and friends in that biz who are trying to help us out with gigs in New York, PA and Boston. Stay tuned…..
PROGARCHY:: So, when do you think you’ll all get around to doing the obligatory concept album? ;-)
DAN: There was one time we all had a conversation about a concept album. We all agreed that we would not do one. “And as you say, concept albums are obligatory. Cliché, even. That’s hardly progressive, right?”
No rush, eh. Well just a tad in there by this amazing prog band.