Although one cannot describe the output of Scottish prog rock quintet Pallas as overwhelmingly much, what the band around bass player Graeme Murray and guitarist Niall Mathewson delivers are, without exception, polished rock musical gems, worked out to the greatest detail, which makes it a real pleasure to listen to them. The Dreams of Men is their latest album and to me this one is a true masterpiece. Time to talk about their new musical gem with singer Alan Reed, a man with a great sense of humor, as you will experience reading this interview.
Again it took you 4 years to make a new album, why do you always keep us waiting so long?
It is a bit complicated really… First of all there is the geographical thing as I am 600 kilometers away from Aberdeen here in London, which can make writing and recording a challenging business. But the main reasons were a bit more interesting. Initially the other four guys carried away when jamming together to build up an "ideas bank" of raw ideas. I ended up getting about 10 CD-Rs of stuff, and I had to shout at them to stop because it was getting too much to cope with. Actually focusing down on the ideas that would make it onto the album took a bit longer than we expected. Then the recording process was somewhat unusual with Ronnie (Brown, MK) deciding he wanted to travel around the world for a year. This meant we pretty much had to record the keys first and do the rest once he had gone! And then finally, Tony Blair put a hex on it by calling an election while I was halfway through the vocals. All BBC leave was cancelled and I was a hostage in the newsroom for 3 months till after the campaign was over. B*******!! The song Messiah is especially dedicated to him because of this…!!
I already thought that Messiah was dealing with "your" Prime Minister….
Well, in fact it is also meant for any arrogant asshole who thinks they know better than the people they are supposed to be serving. TB was definitely very much in mind when we did it, but George W.Bush also figured highly. Look at it another way and it could just as easily be about Dusty Bin Laden.
I think that it is your best album ever and all the reviews were very positive. Does that put a lot of pressure on the band for the upcoming tour and/or the next album?
Just a bit - and we thought we would set ourselves a hard task following "The Cross & The Crucible"!! Errm, I suppose we will cross that bridge when we come to it, but at the moment we are just enjoying having done this one. The critical response has been almost embarrassingly good. I expected a bit rougher ride to be honest as there were at least a couple of things on there that I thought people might find a bit controversial, but on the whole it's been extremely positive. Doing a new album live is always a bit of a challenge. But it is one we look forward too, to be honest. We have played a couple of the tracks live already and it feels very good. Including a fair balance of older stuff in the set will be the biggest problem. We have got so much material to choose from now that it will be hard to choose what to leave out.
There are a lot of orchestral passages and folk influences on this album, whose idea was that?
The tracks kind of cried out for it themselves. We have always been good at the orchestral "sturm und drang" thing, but this time it seems to have moved to another level. Ditto with the Scottish folky elements. We have always had a touch of that melancholy swing about us, but we've perhaps never been this obvious about it before. Adding the fiddle to "Ghostdancers" happened quite late on, but it just seemed exactly the right thing to do.
I think that it was a difficult album for you to sing, or not?
Not really. The keys were about right for me, though there were a few sections we got Graeme to do because they suited his voice better. I did not find the sessions particularly difficult. I just got very into it. I was a bit distracted by other stuff going on in my life at the time, and some of that frustration is apparent in my performances. I also think the mixing and engineering is so much better on this album. My voice can be heard much more clearly than on previous albums.
Who came up with the concept of the album?
I think ultimately it was Graeme. But we had been discussing a theme for the album even as we were on tour with "The Cross". We considered a few different ideas, but none of them really caught the band's collective imagination. We needed something wide-ranging enough that we could explore a number of individual stand-alone musical ideas, but that would hold together as a cohesive whole. Not exactly a simple demand. The Dreams of Men was the one that seemed to fit the bill. Basically it gave us the whole scope of human nature to play with.
Is there a Freudian explanation of the title of the new album as well?
I don't know what you mean, mother!!!
Warriors is about the 9/11 attacks, is it also about the London attacks, and what are your feelings/opinions about that?
To be honest, I was a bit uncomfortable about that to begin with. Graeme and I have very different views about 9/11 and the consequences that have unfolded. Trying to get a lyric that we could both be happy with was a difficult challenge and there were some long exchanges of views during the writing and recording. It's always difficult to write convincingly about such a relatively fresh event in a way that will stand any test of time. I argued for it to be less specifically about 9/11 and more about the human response to such attacks. I think I was right, especially given the London attacks. I was very much caught up in those (professionally, not personally) and I am relieved to say that it has not really hardened my attitudes to the issue. But if we had left the song as it was, those events would have made the lyrics look pretty cheesy.
Musically I hear Yes influences in that song, or am I wrong?
Mostly I hear Deep Purple. If you are referring to the opening guitar arpeggio and the allegation that it sounds something like the beginning of "Soundchaser"(from the album "Relayer", MK), then I must disagree with you……
I am not allegating you at all of anything….
There's a similar technique involved, but it's quite a natural guitar thing to do. The time signs are quite different and the tone is too. There are other moments on the album when Niall seems to have gone "a bit Steve Howe", but I do not think this is one of them. Interestingly enough, I have had three different suggestions for songs that "Warriors" reminds people of. "Soundchaser" is the only one of the three I think any of us have actually heard - and I do not think any of us actually likes it enough to rip it off.
"Too close to the sun" is without any doubt the proggiest Pallas song ever, how did that song come into being?
Every album has its problem child, and for me this was the one. Ronnie's "keyboard concerto No.1" was dragged kicking and screaming into songhood over a period of about a year. I think he was quite surprised when he heard what we had done to it. We made sure he was safely out of the country when we played it to him via mp3!!! To be serious, it was quite a challenge, because it did not seem to leave much room for vocal or guitar melodies. There were various failed attempts to make it work, but it was about the third vocal which survived. In fact Graeme cracked one bit, I cracked another and we ended up adding the two versions together to get a finished vocal line. Oddly enough it seems to work.
"Northern Star"however is a very "un-Pallas"-like song. It reminds me of film music.
Ronnie and Niall more or less jammed it as it is. We thought about developing it further, but it just seemed a shame to change it. We have often been accused of writing "film music" in the past. And I suppose it is true in parts. This track just has a lovely feeling.
The writer George Orwell was a source of inspiration for the song "Invincible", or not?
Not directly, though I suppose it has echoes of "1984" about it. It has also got an element of "I am not a number, I am a free man" from the sixties TV series "The Prisoner". There are also hints of frustration at the commodification of our culture. I do not know about you but I am sick of being treated and targeted by companies and organizations wanting me to buy their products, use their services or whatever, because I fit the customer's profile. There is little private space in society anymore - and any that there is seems to be considered fair game for commercialization. Let's kill the shark, ha ha ….
The album ends with one of the best Pallas songs ever. So, who is Pandy, why the Italian lyrics and what is the story behind that great song?
It's lovely, isn't it? Pandy is a wandering spirit who can be conjured into existence for brief spells if the wind is widdershins to the yardarm, ha ha…Or you can find her in the Aberdeen phonebook… In truth, she is a serious singer who Niall's worked with at the studio and when the idea of using an n opera-style voice surfaced we asked her nicely if she would be interested. She was, and was in fact very enthusiastic about it. I think that singing in Italian was her idea, so we had a bit of fun trying to get a translation sorted out. The song itself was the other problem child on the album. It's been through more versions than you could possible imagine. At one point it looked as if it'd be quietly dropped from the album, but to his credit Graeme in particular persevered with it until he got a version of the opening which really caught everyone's imagination. At that point we really only had a rough sketch of the full arrangement. When I put the vocals down we really were not quite sure how it was going to end other than it was going to be big!!! You can imagine my surprise when I heard the final mix - I had no idea that's how it would end up. Ronnie was even more surprised, cause Niall and Graeme had managed to whip up a keyboard solo without him!!!
Could you tell me what is on the bonus disc?
It is a fairly unusual collection of re-mixes, ideas in progress and some songs that did not quite fit the character of the album. Ronnie gets to do a keyboard solo on "Last Angel"; Niall gets to do his acoustic guitar take on the middle of "Too close to the sun". You also get to hear how difficult drumming in 11/8 is on "Colin counts out time". There is an acoustic song I wrote called "Bottle of broken dreams", which is the only guitar and keyboards I get to play on the album. There is also a long-lost choir version of "Fragments of the sun" from the "Beat the drum" album. The idea is to give an insight into how we work and the various stages of development we go through to get to a finished album. It does not all come out in one go!!
Who made the brilliant cover?
Well, Mike Bentley (the 6 th member of Pallas) is really the man to ask about that, as he is the man responsible. The artwork evolved along with the album. Mike was playing around with various images even as the songs took shape, and although he showed us his various works in progress, it was very much his baby. We do the music; he gets on with the artwork. And he's made rather a good job out of it. He researched and commissioned most of the images himself.
Last question, when will be able to see you in The Netherlands?
Towards the end of January on the 25 th we will be in Zoetermeer. That is "Burns' Night" (celebration of Robert Burns, Scottish national poet), so we will need to locate decent haggis, neeps'n'tatties supplies, and some whiskey, of course…… I believe we are playing with a band called Proto-Kaw who features former members of Kansas. Should be an interesting evening….
Yes, indeed, Well, Alan, thanks for your time and see you in Zoetermeer in 2006.
Thank you and see you on tour!
Interview by Martien Koolen