NUCLEUS INTERVIEW

The interview printed below was slated to appear in May of 2002 in an Argentine progressive rock web site entitled Nucleus (http://www.nucleusprog.cjb.net), translated into Spanish.  To our knowledge, the interview has yet to appear on the Nucleus web page.  For our English-speaking readers, here is the original, untranslated version of the interview.  Interview by Sergio Vilar.

  1. How would you describe your style?

Hermetic Science’s music is a unique blend of several different stylistic sources:  early twentieth-century classical music, the music of J. S. Bach, Renaissance church music, traditional Asian music, ECM-style spatial jazz, and of course progressive rock—both the more mainline keyboard trio format of ELP and Egg and the more acerbic approach of chamber prog bands like Univers Zero.  Our music has always featured a lot of mallet percussion, and as time has gone by we’ve used more and more analog keyboards, as well as archaic instruments like recorders and lyres.  Our characteristic blend of analog keys, vibes, and marimba is quite distinctive.  Our arrangements are distinctive in other ways too:  we often use the bass guitar as a second lead instrument, so our arrangements feature a lot of counterpoint, and our harmonies, which use a lot of stacked seconds, fourths, and fifths, give our music an “open” sound that compliments our instrumentation.  We are one of a very few progressive bands of our era that have an original, immediately recognizable sound.  Unlike the hundreds of clone bands out there, you won’t easily confuse Hermetic Science with anyone else!

  1. Which were your main influences when you started to play?

I was trained as a classical pianist and my first college degree was in piano performance, so obviously I owe a lot to the classical piano tradition.  My father was a skilled amateur jazz drummer, and I think listening to him play when I was a boy developed my sense of swing.  I spent years studying vibraphone and marimba, and developed my own totally unique approach to playing those instruments that took into account classical and jazz approaches, but went beyond them.  I did graduate work in composition, and the analyses of the music of Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams that I undertook in graduate school made a permanent impact on my compositional style.  Most importantly, though, I grew up at a time when a tremendous burst of musical creativity was underway and when what was happening in contemporary classical music, modern jazz, and rock all seemed to be converging.  At that time, I could see a lot of connections developing between these previously separate musical traditions.  I’ve never lost sight of that sense of interconnectedness between rock, jazz, and classical music, and exploring the connections between these supposedly disjunct musical traditions—which, sadly, have in fact been re-separated in the last 25 years—has been a driving force in the music of Hermetic Science.

  1. Please, tell us the concepts behind each one of your albums.

The first album was not based on an extra-musical concept:  it was all about demonstrating what could be done using vibes and marimba as lead instruments in a prog-rock context.  While the album has no concept per se, there is a unity to it, but it’s a purely musical unity, based on a logical progression of moods, tempos, and dynamics.  The Prophesies suite that dominates the second album is loosely based on the Old Testament book of Jeremiah, and musically depicts a progression of warning, doom, anger, mourning, and finally, renewal.  En Route is based around the three major novels of the late nineteenth century French novelist J. K. Huysmanns.  The three novels are more or less interconnected, and feature a spiritual progression that’s not dissimilar to the historical progression of Jeremiah—degeneration, spiritual death, finally rebirth and renewal.  In the second and third albums, the progression of musical moods, tempos, and dynamics are shaped by the concepts—even as they shape it, to some extent.

  1. What do you think of progressive music at this time?

This is something that I don’t prefer to discuss if nobody asks me, but since you’ve asked me, I’ll answer you honestly.  In sum:  I’m not too enthused about what’s going on in progressive music right now.  Why?  Because it’s not progressing anywhere! I see several problems.  First, while some of the print and internet ‘zines do encourage and recognize creativity and originality, distributors are a very conservative lot, and if they can’t immediately pigeon-hole your sound, they either won’t carry your product, or they’ll carry it only in very small quantities.  The result? Bands like us that think “outside the box” (as we say in the U.S.) can’t really sell enough units to keep going financially; we either quit, or voluntarily conform to accepted norms.  Since the distributors won’t carry our music—or, at best, carry it in small quantities, and don’t actively promote it—prog fans never have a chance to hear what we’re doing, and continue to patronize the same familiar bands and styles, because they know what they like and they like what they know.  So the distributor’s conservatism fuels the audience’s unadverturousness.  Second, there’s now literally hundreds, if not thousands, of self-released albums flooding the market—that should be a good thing, but unfortunately, most of these bands simply jump on the current bandwagon, which in recent years has been pseudo-Dream Theater or pseudo-King Crimson, and repeat the same tired old licks.  This glut of releases means more and more of us are competing for smaller and smaller slices of the pie—the progressive music audience is growing very slowly at this point—and again, makes financial survival very difficult.  Hermetic Science have now released three albums, the first two of which met with almost universal critical acclaim, and I’m the author of a world-renowned book on progressive rock, yet sales-wise it’s no easier for us now than it was four and a half years ago when our first album came out.  It’s a bit depressing.  And, of course, with the whole Napster phenomenon, we’ve got a whole generation of new listeners coming up who feel that music ought to be free.  I don’t know where it’s all going to end.

  1. Which bands would you recommend among the newest ones?

Again, I’ll be honest with you at the risk of offending some:  I don’t listen to much new prog anymore.  I can only listen to so many bands rip off the same King Crimson and Dream Theater licks, I can only listen to Spock’s Beard and the Flower Kings recycle the same old riffs from the seventies so many times, and then I can’t take it anymore.  I’ve been working on a book about ELP since late 1998, so there have been periods in the last three and a half years when I’ve really intensively listened to their music, and I’m struck all over again by how fresh, new, and right the best of it still sounds.  I don’t hear much prog today that sounds that fresh.  There was a very real prog revival in the nineties—from ’91 or ’92 to ’98 or ’99—and on occasion I still enjoy listening to Ozric Tentacles, Djam Karet, Anglagard, Xaal, some of the Edhels’ earlier discs, and of course the first two Hermetic Science albums.  Otherwise, though, in my view the prog revival is losing steam fast.  Nowadays I’m much more likely to listen to classical music—especially from the sixteenth and twentieth centuries—or music that’s totally off the beat track, like ancient Greek music, North Indian sitar music, something like that.

  1. Why the name “Hermetic Science”?

Two reasons.  First, as a field of knowledge—if that’s the right word—hermetic science includes among its various branches alchemy, the transformation of base metals into gold.  Our goal has always been to take our disparate influences and fuse them into something new:  to engage in musical alchemy, if you will.  Second, when I first heard of hermetic science many years ago, in a class on seventeenth-century England, I thought it would make an awesome name for a band, very iconic, conveying its own powerful symbolism:  something like “Magma.”  It’s a name we’ve worked very hard to live up to.

  1. What can you tell us about your activities outside Hermetic Science?

I’m also an author, best-known for my book Rocking the Classics:  English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture; a second book, a musical biography of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, is in progress.  I’m Professor of Music at College of the Redwoods, Eureka, a city in the far north of California, where I teach music history, music theory, and keyboard:  I put a lot of energy into teaching!  I like to read a lot:  the Bible, books about history, cultural studies, music, theology—very rarely fiction.  I like to hike, and I live in one of the most beautiful regions of the U.S., good hiking country.

  1. Are your partners involved in any other projects?

Sadly, I’ve lost connection with some of my former band members.  From the first lineup, Don Sweeney is finishing a degree in jazz at the University of Washington (Seattle); Mike Morris is finishing a degree in English at the University of Cincinnati.  From the second lineup, Matt McClimon took a degree in music education at Humboldt State University, and moved to New Orleans to be a part of the jazz scene there.  He quit drumming, and plays vibes now.  Andy Durham became a police officer in the Bay Area, and apparently has quit music.  I’ve always felt that Andy did some stupendous bass work on Prophesies, and I’m irritated his bass playing on that album hasn’t received more recognition.  From the current lineup, Jason Hoopes is major in composition at the University of Southern Oregon in Ashland; he plays in a group up the called Various Artists, totally different than Hermetic Science, they play instrumental dance music, funk and hip-hop oriented, and even employ a DJ!  I think we’re going to hear more from Jason as a composer in the future—he has some terrific ideas.  Joe Nagy is really into the local Afro-Cuban scene, and does a lot of drumming for a local guitarist, Reuben Diaz, whose music is somewhat reminiscent of Carlos Santana’s.  Again, I think Joe is a very accomplished and original drummer, and I’m surprised at how little attention has been paid to his drumming on our first and third albums.  Playing with younger musicians has been an excellent experience for me:  their tastes and outlook are a big reason why Hermetic Science haven’t become a doctrinaire progressive rock band.

  1. You don’t think Hermetic Science’s music needs any vocals? In Rocking the Classics, you have a very strong concept about the lyrics of progressive music.

There are two reasons Hermetic Science is an all-instrumental band.  First and foremost, I’m a composer, not a songwriter:  they are two very different skills.  Second, it’s my opinion that vocal prog has already been done.  About all you can do is either repeat the epic, “philosophical” themes of the seventies, in which case you’re going to sound like Jon Anderson or Peter Hammill, or else you can work in a more modern singer/songwriter vein, in which case the lyric is the main thing and the prog element tends to go out the window.  In my opinion, the most important prog bands of the last decade—Ozric Tentacles, Djam Karet, Xaal, Anglagard, us—have tended to be all-instrumental bands.  The popular vocal prog bands of the last decade—Spock’s Beard, Flower Kings, for example—have tended to relentlessly recycle the same old seventies riffs.  This is in fact more or less the position I took in the final chapter of Rocking the Classics, if I’m not mistaken.

  1. What can you tell us about the book you’re working on?

I’m currently working on a musical biography of Emerson, Lake and Palmer.  I’ve been working on it since late 1998! (Although I did stop work on it for a year.)  It is going to serve both as a biography of the band and a critical survey of their music—above all the ELP corpus, but also the solo work of the three musicians.  Along the way I’m dealing with some issues left over from Rocking the Classics:  I spend a lot of time examining how, and why, the critical reception of prog changed in 1973-74, as well as re-examining the economics, sociology, and politics of prog.  At present, I’ve covered the period of 1970 to 1991.  Although it will not uncover the new vistas of Rocking the Classics or match that book’s incredibly broad panoramic view, in other ways it will go much deeper and deal with its issues with greater nuance, subtlety, and authority.  When it finally is finished, I think readers will find it well worth the wait.