27 July 2010

10 Questions with...Bill Berends

As we peel back the veils of time…

Back in 1996 I went to see Jethro Tull and Emerson Lake and Palmer at the Garden State Arts Center. While there, someone was handing out postcards for a publication called Progression Magazine. Intrigued, I took one, and later decided to subscribe. When I got my first issue (Summer 1996, in case you were curious, with Daevid Allen of Gong on the cover), I was shocked to see just how many new and interesting bands were playing the music I loved. I decided to take a chance on one release each from a few different bands, and as for the results, well…I discovered Spock’s Beard, discipline., Braindance, and from New Jersey, a group called Mastermind.

Mastermind’s music has gone through numerous changes over the years; varying releases have leaned toward fusion (Excelsior! With Jens Johanssen on keys), symphonic prog (
Brainstorm and Tragic Symphony) and power metal (Angels of the Apocalypse). Two things have remained constants for Mastermind…brothers Rich and Bill Berends, the only musicians to appear on every Mastermind release.

Things have been very quiet on the Mastermind front for some time…2 years without live shows, nearly 10 years since the release of their last full-length studio album. The silence was shattered this year as the band was signed to Lion Records out of Finland for the release of Insomnia, an album well and long overdue. However, the Berends Brothers have not been silent all that time. They have played numerous club gigs as both The Berends Brothers and the Berends Wilson Trio, whipping up a decadent and satisfying mix of psych and blues, with the occasional Mastermind tune or guest vocal from Mastermind singer Tracy McShane added in as a bonus.

Over the years since my purchase of that first Mastermind CD (for the record, I believe it was Brainstorm, but I bet Bill could look it up and find it), I’ve gotten to know Bill Berends reasonably well, and it was an honour for me to have him to agree to sit down and answer a few questions about life, liberty, and the pursuit of prog. Sit down, crack open a cold one, and read along!

1. What's a quick and dirty "This is how I got into playing this kind of music" history for you?

BB: First off, thanks for your interest in our music Bill, I really appreciate it, especially since MASTERMIND has been off the radar for some time.

That's a big question since I enjoy and play a few different styles of music, but I think somehow they are all related. Like most baby boomers, I got into rock 'n' roll with The Beatles. I really admired George Harrison, he always seemed so into the music and more thoughtful and serious than John & Paul up front being pop stars. I was all about the MUSIC, not jumping about and thinking I was cool. I got a cheap acoustic guitar when I was maybe 10 or 12 and started learning Beatles and Stones tunes, stuff like that. Then a couple years later I discovered CREAM and that really did it for me, it was like nothing I had ever heard before. I know that's hard to imagine now in this age of too much everything, but that music was a real shock to the system at the time. At that moment I knew what I was gonna do with my life. I got serious about playing, took some lessons, pestered my folks into getting me the Gibson SG I've played all these years - they thought it would keep me out of trouble (which it probably did for the most part, being something of a problem child) - and started my first rock band with friends in the 9th grade.

Always the curious type, I wanted to know who influenced the guys I admired and that took me straight to the blues. When I was a kid it wasn't how many notes you could play, it was how good was your vibrato, you know? Anyway, in the late 60's rock got very experimental and the lines were blurred between blues, pop, folk, psychedelic, even some classical, and that seemed quite natural to me. Besides Cream, artists like Hendrix, Ten Years After, Spirit, Jethro Tull, Jefferson Airplane, they where all pushing the envelope in some way or another. It was a very creative time. Down the road, blues eventually led me to jazz and fusion, but that came a little further on.

The other side of my musical persona came from totally outside of rock n' roll. As kids, my parents took us to church every Sunday where, being quite bored with the sermons, I was captivated by the huge pipe organ and clarion bells. It was a huge cathedral-like Lutheran church and the pipe organ had such a majestic sound, it always took me to another place inside my head. I loved it! Also at the time, my younger brother David was studying classical piano at Peabody (Baltimore) so I was always hearing Bach, Chopin, Prokofiev, etc. around the house as he practiced. That worked it's way into my musical psyche as well. Going to school in the 60's there were music classes all through grade school where there was always some melody, rhythm, modulation... *something* that would catch my attention, touch me deeply in some undescribable way. I never dreamed I would pursue a life of music at the time, but I knew music really got to me in some deep mysterious way.

As for what got me into progressive rock, it was a drummer kid who sat next to me in high school that turned me onto ELP, forced me to listen to it actually, and I hated it! Really. It was so alien sounding to me. However, slowly but surely I found myself drawn back to it for some inexplicable reason. Although it lacked any great guitar work which was my primary interest at the time, it did merge the other elements of my musical brain, combining the classical piano and organ nodes in my mind with the power of bluesy hard rock. So ELP was the second big revelation for me as a budding muso, after Cream. The third wave came to me as The Mahavishnu Orchestra which again I truly hated at first! But once again it slowly drew me in and pretty much blew my mind on every level. It was sort of the next level of what Cream had done instrumentally, and that really appealed to me. I guess that sums it up. Quick and dirty... Cream, ELP, and Mahavishu (plus their influences, predecessors and peers, like John Mayall, King Crimson, and Miles for example) were the things that shaped my musical world.

Another reason I took to working with progressive rock is most of it is based around composition rather than improvisation and that was easier to create in a recording environment. To make real blues, jazz, and fusion, you need live players to interact with, and that's a lot harder than building up compositions on tape (or computers as the case may be nowadays). If I would have had access to more players, I'm sure it all would have gone in a different direction, but geographically speaking, there was no one else nearby who shared my interests other than my brother who I started brainwashing as a child. So Mastermind is as much a child of circumstance as it was a musical vision. I built an imaginary band in my head and in the recording studio which was often a real challenge to try and duplicate in a live setting, especially as a trio. However, playing live is really what I enjoy most about music, so we always had some sort of live situation going on. Whether we pulled it off is up to the listener to decide, but with my sensibilities I always kind of felt like we were doing the "Live Cream" interpretation of our recorded works rather than trying to duplicate the recordings exactly. Some people "get" that, but many others do not. Most people basically just want to hear the record played really loud at a concert. I on the other hand, hate playing things the same way over & over like a recital. That gets old, fast.

And finally, I think the one element that perhaps most pushed me towards progressive rock with Mastermind is, at the time we started doing this somewhere in mid-1986, the polyphonic guitar synthesizer MIDI controller was finally a workable and affordable reality. I kind of went nuts with it and our first recordings were really about seeing just how far I could go with it. I finally had some synthesizers I could (almost) really play on guitar and I went nuts. Of course over the years I began to view it more as an albatross than an asset, because it was something I became known for, but ultimately it detracts from a more intimate style of expression on guitar rather than adding to it, although in a trio context it did help fill out the sound. I haven't used it in years. I still enjoy synthesizers though, so it is something of a dilemma for me. Perhaps one day they will make one that is truly transparent from the player's point of view, but at this point I would just prefer to play guitar and work with a keyboard player. I dunno, we'll see. The guitar-synth is something of a love-hate relationship.

2. What would you say are your biggest influences, musically or personally?

BB: Musically, see above. Personally, I'm not sure how to answer that. I've always admired musicians who were serious and dedicated to their art. I was never about, and never enjoyed, the "rock star" thing. Guys with their shirts off prancing about and posing. Rock out with your cock out, bang your head kind of stuff. I thought it was silly and I still do. When KISS came along in the early 70's I thought it was incredibly stupid. I still do. They are to music what professional wrestling is to sports…a mockery. Costumes, makeup, none of that theatrical stuff ever did anything for me. So needless to say, as time when on and that became more or less the norm, rock music seemed more stupid with each passing year. There are a few exceptions, like DEVO whom I really enjoy, but they intentionally play up being stupid and silly to emphasis how stupid it all is. Devolution.

I also don't really enjoy much rock music that doesn't at least have a trace element of blues. It's funny in a way, because Mastermind being classified as prog-rock has always been a difficult pill for me to swallow because a large portion of music called prog has no blues in it at all and, well, see my previous sentence. I really don't like it and lots of proggers simply don't understand that. You know, the music of the late 60's I enjoyed was often, at the time, called "progressive blues" which kind of sums up my underpinnings. Music can't be all about being intellectual, it has to have heart and soul as well. When I was younger all these founding father "prog-rock" bands were just other rock bands doing their thing. They weren't billed as "prog" and that separation and classification has always annoyed me and limited the audience in my opinion. Most people don't know Yes opened for Cream or that ELP would be co-billed with The Allman Brothers Band. It's marketing that subdivided the music and I really don't think that helped things other than to make it more inbred and less original. Look at the lineups at the seminal festivals of the 60's like Monterey Pop or Woodstock... you couldn't get away with that kind of diversity nowadays.

On a purely personal level, I admire and respect people who are dedicated to *something* in their lives. People who have found a reason for living. Too many people just wander through life with no real purpose other than having fun and using up resources, just passing the time. And by this I don't mean just making money, in fact I loathe people who dedicate themselves to money. The whole "got mine, get yours" mentality that really took hold in the 80's makes me crazy, and that's what got us into the situation the world is in now, that whole me first attitude. I grew up in the 60's and the cultural revolutions that took place, people striving for a better world, breaking down barriers, those kind of things I admired and still do.

3. It's been a long time since Mastermind has been active. What have you been doing lately?

BB: Drinking. Seriously, it's only been two and a half years now that Mastermind hasn't been active. 2008 was the first year in 22 years that there wasn't a single Mastermind gig which bummed me out. However, it has been nearly a decade since we've offered up any new recorded music. If you've read any of my blogs on the Mastermind website I kind of get into it there. I was waiting out the Bush Administration is basically it, though we were playing a lot of live shows until yet another bass player took leave. We did complete an album somewhere around 2004 and we released the BROKEN EP with a couple tunes from it in 2005, but we couldn't find a decent label deal until late last year. That album is INSOMNIA and was finally released by LION MUSIC in Finland earlier this year (2010). In all honesty, I wasn't really pursuing getting it released very aggressively is the truth of the matter. I felt we were heading in the wrong direction with Angels of the Apocalypse and music as a whole seemed so... redundant and pointless. I wasn't really enjoying myself much anymore, so I had to step away from it for a while. I am pleased to see INSOMNIA finally get released properly though. Now if we could just get more people to notice, I think it has a lot of potential. I'm sure if we could have got it released earlier on, our momentum would've kept us going, but it is what it is at this point. The "prog world" is definitely something of a social scene as well, and in experimenting with different directions it definitely feels like we fell out of favor on a social level. People I've known for years in the prog world totally ignore us now, people I thought were my friends! As if I've somehow betrayed the cause or something. I was a little shocked by that, how incredibly shallow some people are. I thought prog was all about being open minded and forward thinking when that doesn't seem to be the case at all.

Anyway, once Mastermind went into stasis I went back to my roots of just playing bluesy guitar without the synths and metal and have been having a great time with it. It made me re-examine my interests and motivations, I think it's made me a better player and singer, and it has earned us a whole new group of fans who really don't enjoy the prog stuff, so that's a little bit weird sometimes. I am writing and recording new music again, finally. Some of it may end up as Mastermind, some of it is simply Bill Berends plays guitar, some of it may become a blues album, and I also have another album's worth of symphonic fusion written that's sort of a cross between Excelsior! and Tragic Symphony, but I haven't quite sorted out how to bring that to life yet. The older you get, the harder it is to get people to put in the time that's necessary since there isn't a lot of money involved, they're busy with their real lives, struggling to keep the bills paid, going on vacations, whatever. It's tough.

So, I have at least three, maybe four, albums worth of new music in various stages of completion. Now the challenge is to get it finished and see who might want to release it. The problem as I see it is, there is too much of everything now with the explosion of the internet since Y2K and it's really difficult to get people to notice something since there is now thousands of times more music all fighting to get in your face. I mean, there is so much music everywhere it almost feels pointless to add more noise to the cacophony regardless of how good it may or may not be... there's just too much. It overwhelms people and they just don't care anymore, so they shut it out. Also, the music that seems to get tons of attention for some reason is really quite banal and redundant in my opinion, so I guess it all gets down to when I feel like re-joining the fight. I could release all this stuff independently, cater to our core audience, which is an option I may consider... but one thing about the smallness of the prog scene, and this holds true with other niche styles of music too, is when the fan base is so small and targeted it becomes quite myopic. There is a certain appeal to playing a good old classic rock song EVERYBODY knows because it is a shared experience, something that brings people together. There is an aspect to that I really like. So even tho' everything you can imagine is probably out there somewhere on the internet if you look for it hard enough - and some of it is quite good - that feeling of a shared experience doesn't come with it. I miss that feeling. So it is something of a dilemma... how to get that shared experience while still trying to make interesting and challenging music.

4. Recently you entered into a partnership with Mindawn to offer the Mastermind back catalogue digitally. How has this worked out so far?

BB: It's worked out pretty well I suppose. The whole online digital music revolution was not something I was really prepared for, like many others. I like the FLAC audio format, but I also realize it raises the bar too high for the average music fan, so we've also put some of our stuff up on Bandcamp where people can get it as mp3's. Lion Music has our new INSOMNIA album on iTunes as well. Personally, I've never purchased a music download and doubt I ever will. I still prefer full quality audio, I still like having a physical package in my hands. Artwork and packaging really adds to the whole experience and simply downloading music just adds to the disposable feel of it all. I really miss going to the record store and thumbing thru albums for the odd and unexpected discovery.

5. Will there be future digital releases coming soon on Mindawn?

BB: Perhaps. I have so much music sitting in the closet and on my computers it isn't even funny. But for something to be a new official release I want it released as a physical product. Something real that you can hold in your hand. The digital-only releases will continue to be live stuff and probably some other oddities. We'll see. Right now, working on new music and playing live is my top priority.

6. Was Mastermind ever professionally filmed? If so, any chance of a DVD release sometime?

BB: Not really. There was a three-camera shoot of one of our Progday performances, but the lighting is weird and the sound mix was pretty awful. We have hundreds of hours of amateur video, almost every live show Mastermind played since the mid-nineties. The problem is finding the time and/or the funds to get it edited and presented properly on DVD. It is something I would like to see happen. I guess as faster computers become cheaper I'll probably end up doing it myself at some point, there has been a lot of interest. Truthfully though, I'd rather be making music than learning new software, so it may never happen.

7. What would you say was your biggest thrill playing live?

BB: One single big thrill? Let me think... going to Japan and Europe was cool, I'd like to do that again, see more of the world. Just traveling all over and having people be happy to see you when you get there is a pretty neat experience. As for the big thrill of playing live, when the moment is right, that is when I connect with the Universe in a very spiritual way and disconnect from my worldly baggage. I think that's common to a lot of musicians. That's why we do it. That's why I do it anyway. I do remember one ProgDay festival where things ran late and it got dark... there were no stage lights so we ended up playing with people pulling their cars around the stage to illuminate the stage with headlights. That was neat. What else... Fish kissed me on the lips at our last show with him. That was out there!

8. Each of Mastermind's albums has evolved/built on the one previous. What direction do you see the new Mastermind going?

BB: I have given Rich sketches of twelve new tracks to learn that are potentially the basis for a new Mastermind album, somewhat reminiscent of, or perhaps a follow up to,
Until Eternity with a touch of Brainstorm in there, plus a little of the Tragic Symphony album's symphonicness. How it will turn out in the end is hard to say exactly. I have steered away from the power metal stylings of the Angels and Insomnia albums to a large degree - though there is still plenty of power - but that stylistic niche just seems so limited to me. Metal as a whole is a very conservative form of music and I need more room to move around. As to what approach it will take vocally and instrumentally, I will probably tap into the talents of people we have worked with on previous releases, but the overall character is decidedly closer to the original spirit of the band. Anything that strays too far away from that I'll probably want to release under another name. INSOMNIA was something I felt I needed to do at that particular time, but I don't think it represents where I am now, today, musically speaking. It's a shame it took so long to get it released because I think it gives it more weight than it should have.. this isn't the big comeback album as some people portray it to be, it was just another experimental side step that got bogged down by the changing times.

I think that's where we got into trouble in the first place, trying to do too many things under the Mastermind banner which confused some people. As Jens is found of saying "people want the same soap in the soapbox" and I guess that's probably true, though I can think of many exceptions to that statement. The next thing I will be getting out there will probably be my solo guitar album. In prepping for some new Mastermind recordings I started experimenting with recording different guitars which led me to making a collection of rock tunes that are all guitar instrumentals, in the vein of Eric Johnson or Satriani you might say. Just me, the studio, and my guitars. That one should see the light of day as we work towards something new as Mastermind.

9. Past albums have seen some tracks with a decided political focus to them. Are you hopeful that things will change, or fearful that there will be more of the same?

BB: I am always hopeful, but greed, corruption, and massive wealth will still dominate this world for a long time to come. I had high hopes that Obama would breath some fresh air into the political system, and I think he's marginally better than the alternative that was offered, but not by much. He is a slave to his corporate masters. The USA has become the pawn of international corporations, globalism, and the interests of other countries which makes me sick to think about. In the last decade we've all been fucked over by the most massive upward shift of wealth in nearly a century. How could we let this happen? It pisses me off and I wish more people would get angry and DO something about it instead of living with their heads in the sand... but what can you do? I do not see things getting better for the average person for quite some time to come.

10. Do you have any final words for our readers?

BB: My heartfelt thanks and appreciation to everyone who has supported our musical efforts over the years with their hard earned dollars. I thank you all.


(Photo of Bill Berends in concert at John & Peters, New Hope PA, by Bill Knispel.)

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