Last week I was lucky enough to share a phone call with one of my personal favorite new progressive artists, Ian Neal. Not your average rocker, Ian is a 45-year-old lecturer at the University of Derby in England who recently finished his PhD in Victorian art. Unique for working on one track at a time and recording and producing alone in his home, Ian’s 2011 sophomore album Out of the Woods captivated listeners with progressive themes, spoken poetry, classical influence and recorded samples of nature.
JP: I think the first question that’s on my mind when we play Out of the Woods is which instruments are you authentically playing, and which ones are synthesized as part of the studio?
IN: Well, okay, when you say authentically playing, it’s all authentically played, a lot of the sounds are based from a keyboard and played from a piano. Are you a bit of a muser yourself, Jack?
JP: Yeah, I have a pretty good idea of different instruments.
IN: I’ve got a weighted keyboard, which is like a mother keyboard that I work mostly from. Along with that, I have a key-bass setup and I run quite a powerful computer. So that’s the one side of the studio. Then on the other side I’ve got somewhere where I jam more than anything, a keyboard setup with bass pedals, stuff like that. Then there’s some guitars on Out of the Woods, isn’t there, and on All in the Golden Afternoon? They’re all played – actually I think it’s a bit of a mixture – I think like 90 percent of it is me strumming away on acoustic, and there’s some electric as well. And very occasionally I’ll use samples and guitar sounds playing form the keyboard. If I’ll use any loops, in the past it’s only been for drum sounds. But I kind of steer away from using any recorded instrumental parts. There is a little fraction in All in the Golden Afternoon, on the last track, “The Dawn Wind,” a kind of ten second fragment of an orchestra playing; I used it, but then I sort of changed the picture of it and created a new riff on it. Other than that I prefer to play all the parts. I actually don’t play the bass guitar, either, so all the bass you hear is me playing that from the keyboard. But, yeah, when you’ve got quite nice sounding sound modules and stuff, I find that when you start playing, you kind of play like the instrument itself if you’ve got a bit of knowledge of the instrument anyway, then you kind of get into a zone of that instrument and you end up playing it quite differently than a piano or an organ. So yeah, there’s tons of string sounds, isn’t there? Kind of orchestral sounds. I use something called Edirol, it’s a branch of Roland, it’s an orchestral sound module, and I’ve been using another one as well, Auria, and Garrethand, have you heard of Garrethand? They are American actually, but yeah, I think a lot of cinema score writers use it, it’s quite high quality orchestral sound. Yeah, they tend to be the strings. Then there’s the old, more vintage-y type sounds like the mellotron and the Hammond sounds.
JP: The strings honestly fooled me at first. And the flutes, as well.
IN: *Laughter* Yeah, if you’re careful, you can create something really authentic. Again, I think you need a bit of a knowledge of how orchestras work, like dividing up the strings into different parts, like the violins, violas, cellos and basses, and if you do that and just have one line for each, you’ll automatically find that it starts sounding more like a real string section rather than just hammering out on a keyboard as just one patch as it were. So yeah, I think there’s deliberately been some careful – at times I’m quite careful, and at other times I’m just a bit more flippant with it – there are probably things happening that orchestras wouldn’t do.
JP: So you say you’ve been in some bands before, but they’ve never really worked out. Why is it that you prefer to write, record and produce alone?
IN: I think it’s because I can get the kind of size of the production as big as I want, really. I think that’s one thing that really appeals to me. And then just having ultimate control over it, as well. Also, if you were working in a band – yeah, again it’s that control thing – I think it probably would restrain me a little bit. I can’t imagine myself being quite bossy and telling the bass player what he should be doing. I don’t know, I think it’s a control thing. I mean, I keep toying with the idea of bringing musicians in, but part of me thinks, well, I’ll just do it myself. Guitar is like my second instrument as well. I’m not that good at it, but I think that means you play in a different sort of a way, and you do things on your second instrument that you just wouldn’t do on your primary instrument, which for me is keyboard. So yeah, I don’t mind having the restrictions. The next thing, actually, on the shopping list is a proper bass guitar and a 12-string I think.
JP: Yeah that could be really cool. There are a lot of parts in Out of the Woods where I feel like the bass is leading a new phrase with something that might be higher up on the fret board, and with an actual bass guitar, you could definitely make more twangs and authentic sounds.
IN: Yeah I think you’re right. I’ve come to really regard bass as something which can, if you want to, drive the melody. When I first started out, I always just thought of it as something that’s just holding down the root note; just being a fundamental, but more and more I start to think of it as something which drives more of the melody. Like you say, if you’re playing the proper instrument higher up on the fret board you can do some nice stuff.
JP: Can you describe your writing and recording process, and how manny hours you’re able to put in per week?
IN: The hours have gone up now that I’ve finished the PhD. When you’re teaching, of course, that takes up a bit of your time. But I’m only part-time at the University of Derby, so three days I’m at work there, and I’ve got another four days off. But today, for example, I’ve just been on it all day, more or less. Normally it is one track at a time. I’ve been breaking that rule a little bit, at the moment, I’ve just started to look at trying to work on more than one thing at a time. The process, if ever I think it’s ever slightly boring or the production is just not quite right, I’ll just kind of go at it like a perfectionist in a way. I wouldn’t want anything to be released half-done as it were. So it just takes a long time, especially since it’s just me doing it as well. It’s quite time consuming. In terms of just getting started, it’s probably like a lot of people, jamming away, doing it that way really.
JP: Seems to work!
IN: Yeah, I was going to say, the other thing is, the vocal fragments I’ve been using, you know, the spoken poetry. That kind of helps, a lot, as well, sometimes when you can just drop those in, sometimes you can use that as a start before you even put any music to it. It seems to just help shape an atmosphere, and then everything just starts flowing out.
JP: Some of those poems are really heavy, I found, with imagery and ideas. Some of them were about nature, some of them were about war, especially on Out of the Woods. So I guess what I want to know is do you have any formal poetry experience; did you study it? How did you choose these poems?
IN: I don’t have much experience, not a great deal actually. So choosing it: I started off when I was living in Sheffield, which is a city a bit further north of here, just going to the music library and finding these old cassettes literally with spoken poetry on them which were a bit outdated, I think they’re from the 1970s or maybe even earlier. I just kind of raided those and listened out for things which I thought were going to work well. I suppose the other thing which helped was this British band, I don’t know if they’re going anymore, they were called Lemon Jelly.
JP: Yeah, I saw you talk about them, the electronic band with acoustic influences.
IN: Yeah, that’s right. And they used some interesting spoken fragments. One of the interesting things is that they were in an English accent as well, musicians over here had always been using stuff with American accents, you know, James Brown samples and stuff. So it was a bit odd to hear something which sounded English. I think at that point I thought, well, blimey, I could be doing this! But yeah, I just went down to the music library and got these cassettes, and since then I’ve been in charity shops to see old cassettes or LPs lying around with spoken poetry; I’ve just been collecting them. But there’s not going to be much of that on this third album, though. I’ll get back to all that, I think, for the fourth one.
JP: You said the third one is going to be more sci-fi influenced.
IN: Yeah *laughter* That was the plan, yeah.
JP: I’m interested to see what comes out of that, given the first two are not in that realm at all.
IN: Well the key difference – well I’ve got about three tracks now that are more or less done, and a few more on the way, some rough drafts – I think it still sounds very much like my stuff, maybe in the more proggy bits where it’s a bit heavier. And the key difference really is that there’s no acoustic guitar. I think as soon as you plant acoustic guitar in, it gives it a folk sensibility. The idea is it’s sort of going to be sci-fi inspired. But there’s still some vintage synth sound and if it is heading that way, it’s a bit of a paradox, but it’s sort of looking back to how maybe sci-fi was configured in the 1970s. You know what I mean?
JP: Definitely. So you mentioned Lemon Jelly, and when I listen to your music I sometimes hear Pink Floyd influence.
IN: Yeah you were saying that!
JP: Especially the opening chord in “The Lake,” it sounds similar to Animals. So I was just curious what some of your other influences were, and how you’ve taken them in with your music?
IN: Yeah! Just going back to Pink Floyd first, they’re not my favorite band, but I do have Animals, Wish You were Here, Dark Side of the Moon and stuff. I do listen to them now and again, and they are great. Funny enough, the track I’m working on at the moment has got a bit of a Floyd, laid back kind of feel to it. Otherwise, I do like a lot of classical music as well, kind of contemporary American. You know John Adams, a contemporary American composer? You might like it, it’s a bit inspired by American minimalist people.
JP: Like Steve Reich? Yeah, I’m a fan of Steve Reich.
IN: Steve Reich, Yeah, me too. I like Air, you know the French band Air?
IN: Just looking at my CD case here to help me out, do you know a band called Barclay James Harvest?
JP: No I don’t.
IN: They’re an old British 70s band, they’re quite sweet actually. I’ve been getting into Camel recently as well, another British prog rock band. A lot of their stuff is instrumental. Then there’s a band, who I think they’re British as well, more contemporary stuff, they’re called the Cinematic Orchestra, I’m quite keen on them. I’m absolutely fanatical about Genesis, I don’t know if that has come across in the music. In particular their keyboard player Tony Banks, I kind of like his stuff. I liked them a lot probably up to about 1980, after that they seem to go a wee bit too commercial. And then Steve Hackett as well, I like his work. I’m a real fan of Mike Oldfield as well. I’ve just started getting interested in Soft Machine, and there’s a couple of British acts which are a bit more up to date, and they’re not really prog inspired, more so electronic. There’s Goldfrapp, and there’s another one called Zero7. I quite like their stuff, it is quite musical, I think they put quite a bit into it. I’m not sure of their background, I think they might be more DJs rather than musicians. As well as that, I like Renaissance, I’ve only recently come across them, but they’re not really going anymore, if they are they’ve only recently gotten back together. But in the 70s they were quite big. I love their stuff. As well as that, people like Yes, all the kind of stalwarts of prog rock. And then some classical influence as well, you know, Stravinsky, and some English composers like Delius and Vaughn Williams, and then French people like Debussy and Faure.
JP: That’s a wide range!
IN: It might be quite predictable in a way.
JP: No, I don’t think so. So I guess I just have one more question, you said one of your main goals in the music you write is to create something that people won’t get tired of, something with replay value. Do you feel you’ve accomplished that in your albums?
IN: Yeah! Sometimes I leave it for quite a while before I go back and listen to them. I listened to All in the Golden Afternoon all the way through about 3 weeks ago. I kind of pleased myself, probably by the production since that was my first effort at producing and engineering the sound and stuff. Actually saying that, I keep going back to them and keep re-producing them, but for those two albums, they are actually done undusted now that I got the digital release out last April. I did make sure that they were re-mastered and re-perfected. So yeah, I’m pleased with what I’ve done. I suppose that’s the only test, if you can listen to it again and be happy with it. The problem is, of course, you are a bit subjective about listening to your own music, so you have to try and create a bit of a distance. I’ve found in the past that if there’s someone else in the room, that helps with the writing side of things actually. If you’re standing there and someone else is in the room, and you think, “Oh shit, this bit’s bloody awful,” it just highlights it a bit more than if you were listening to it on your own. There seems to have been a good critical response from other people, some nice things have been said. And I think if it works for those few people, not too many people know about it, but the ones who do seem to like it. I think that’s what we should be doing as musicians and artists, making something that has longevity to it.