10 August 2010

(More than) 10 Questions With...Phideaux Xavier

I’m trying to remember where I first heard the name Phideaux.

It may have been on the Mike Portnoy forum. It might have been on the Progressive Music Society Yahoogroup mailing list. It’s entirely possible it was on Progressive Ears. It’s ultimately less important to know where and when (though the when goes back to 2008) I heard the name, and more important that I did. If you’re not familiar with Phideaux’s work, I’d suggest a crash course via the album Doomsday Afternoon or the epic song ‘Chupacabras,’ from the album of the same name. Phideaux’s music is melodic, dense, and above all incredibly symphonic, as befits a 10-member band.

Phideaux isn’t just a band, however; he’s also a person. Phideaux Xavier is the mastermind at the center of the Phideaux universe. With a discography that includes 7 albums dating back to 2003 (there is an eighth album, Friction, that was released in 1993, though it is not listed in their official catalogue on their website), his is a musical voice that is unique and distinctive. When not busily crafting his next piece of expansive, darkly symphonic progressive music, he’s whiled away his time working on some TV shows that may have some passing familiarity with some people…Sunset Beach, Passions, The Young and the Restless, and General Hospital. Oh, and he’s even won an Emmy Award as well.

Phideaux is a busy man, and it took me a while to decide to ask if he’d be interested in answering a few questions, as I didn’t want to add to his already large load of work. Thankfully for me (and you out there), he was more than willing to take some time to sit down and open up about the past, the present, and what the future holds for fans of his music. I found his answers to be incredibly insightful, and I picked up a lot of info about his work and music that I didn’t know before, and I think it’ll be the same for you.

My thanks, as always, to the man himself, for sharing so generously of his time.

And now…(More than) 10 questions with Phideaux Xavier!

1) I hate opening with the generic 'how did you get started' question, but...how did you get started in music?

PX: I've always loved music and I had an older sister who listened to the pop music of the 60s - Jefferson Airplane, The Beatles, Moody Blues and Rolling Stones. That, plus an obscure American artist named Bert Sommer (who opened Woodstock!) were the first things I loved as a kid. From there I discovered Mothers Of Invention, Alice Cooper and Jethro Tull. So, for me I started in music because I loved to listen to it and I especially liked music that was heavy on the concept, and heavy on the studio production. Albums like Magical Mystery Tour, We're Only In It For The Money and Thick As A Brick were manna from Heaven. As a small child I took a guitar course at the local recreation center and I met my guitar teacher, Ilene Lieberman, who introduced me to the music of Genesis, Fireballet and Renaissance. She taught me how to finger pick using the song "Black Flame" by Renaissance. She was an immense influence on my musical development. However, I wasn't such a good guitarist, but once I learned some chords I started putting them together and coming up with my own rubbish songs. My first song was a 20 minute thing called Idyll (although I'm not sure I ever really wrote the whole thing out, possibly just had a lot of it in my head. I used to be a newspaper delivery boy. I would sing to myself the whole route and come up with fantasy bands and Space Ritual length album concepts that I would sing as I did my delivery. There was a whole lot of fantasizing about making extremely grandiose albums when I was a kid.

2) What bands or artists would you say are the biggest influences in the music you write?

PX: I am inspired by every band/artist I've ever heard. I recognize, obviously, the music of my youth in our stuff. However, the more unusual things that I can see impacting Phideaux music would be Alice Cooper, Joy Division, Siouxsie & The Banshees, The Cure. That's a whole era of music that was important to me. Plus, the music was conceptual while being easy to play. I'm not a virtuoso player. I've never been very interested in virtuoso players or jazz music. For me it's all about the studio as an instrument, the recording as the artwork. Sgt. Pepper vs. Bitches Brew, Days Of Future Passed vs. Eat A Peach. I was also influenced by the 90s goth stuff of Dead Can Dance and Cocteau Twins. So, add all of that into the standard Tull/Genesis/Yes/Renaissance and you've probably got the tempate of Phideaux.

3) How do you find time to balance music with your 'day job' (for those who do not know, Phideaux is a Director for ABC soap opera General Hospital, which just won an Emmy award for Direction)?

PX: I do a lot of my composing/producing on the weekends and during dark weeks when the show is not in production. I am fortunate because I only work in the studio 1 or 2 days per week. The rest of the work is done at home on my own timeline. So, I can spend 14 hours one day getting all my preparation done and then have a day for recording sessions or rehearsals. And I've worked in soap operas for many years. General Hospital is a great and creative place to work. I come away from my work on the show feeling energized, not drained.

4) How would you say that Phideaux's music has evolved over the life of the band?

PX: Well, firstly it was a process for us to become a band. Originally, the first album (Fiendish) was really a solo piece with contributions from of the people I've played with in various bands throughout the years. The second album (Ghost Story) was actually recorded before the first but stayed in mothballs until I found someone who could mix it. Gabe and I started working together after Fiendish was recorded, although he only mixed about half of it. The third album, Chupacabras, was comprised of leftover bits from the Ghost Story and Fiendish recordings. So, it wasn't until 313 that we were all gathered together in a studio. For that album I assembled the people who had chiefly helped me create the previous albums for an experiment to see what we could create as an "album in a day". My nephew had turned me onto a website about albums that were created in a day. I liked the idea of doing something quickly and something that I didn't agonize over. Unfortunately, we didn't really get a complete item in one day. It was a bit more ambitious than could be finished. So, as we were in the middle of finishing Chupacabras at the time, I put aside 313 to be finished a bit later. Ultimately it took about a year, but it sowed the seeds for making a "band". The first totally new material I created after 313 was Great Leap/Doomsday Afternoon which were written simultaneously with me and Rich. We were huddled in his subzero rehearsal/recording room in Williamsburg, Brooklyn trying to figure out You & Me Against A World Of Pain and Formaldehyde. Actually, we moved from there after a few months to a cozy room in uptown Manhattan in Ultrasound rehearsal studios.

After Doomsday Afternoon we got the opportunity to perform at Festival Crescendo in France. That really created the band because prior to that we hadn't played live in with this material. Various of us had played together in a lot of bands, but never doing this type of music. So, after Crescendo we had travelled together and rehearsed many months in a small room. We became a band and from that experience we began Number Seven. Through that process the music came a little more alive with contributions from other members and with more of a give and take.

5) The current band is fairly expansive (10 members in total); how did you choose these particular musicians for your work?

PX: The "family tree" of Phideaux is as follows. In middle school and early high school, Molly Ruttan and Linda Ruttan-Moldawsky and I were in a rock band called Mirkwood with a flute player named Amanda Ettlinger. She left and we got a vocalist/keyboard player named Valerie Gracious and we changed the name to Sally, Dick & Jane (which became a "new wave" band). That ended mid college and I fussed around with making tapes of music where I played all the instruments. (Molly/Linda went on to play in a band called Garden). Later, I formed a celtic folk rock band called SunMachine with Ariel Farber and her husband Will Guterman. Ariel and I grew up in the same town and knew each other from a small age. While SunMachine was happening, I met a drummer named Rich Hutchins. We started working on harder rock music together (which would become Ghost Story) and also played in a band called Satyricon (not the famous one). I was the bassist and co songwriter for this band. Then, I moved to L.A and eventually started recording what would become Fiendish. So, all the folks are people who I've worked with in the past. Mark Sherkus and I were best friends at age 10 and Gabe Moffat lived briefly in my neighbourhood when I was about 11 or 12 and I taught him a blues scale on the guitar (although he later went to music school and can now play rings around me). For Johnny Unicorn, we met on myspace and I fell in love with his music and Mat is a guy who I got friendly with on the internet. He is bass player for the band Discipline (who I love) and I invited him to play on Doomsday. He showed up with all his parts down pat, knew the album front to back and was so creative and professional. Plus, he's the nicest guy you could ever want to know so we all roped him into the band and we won't let him go! That's the story of the band. Most of these people are folks I've known since childhood, so we share such a great deal of history. It's a pleasure to make art with folks when you can refer back to an "in" joke from 9th grade.

6) Phideaux was one of the featured bands at 3 Rivers Prog Festival in 2009, and I know from reading your blog that the band has performed a select few other live dates in the past. If you had the opportunity would you like to play out more?

PX: Of course, but it's always a question of where is the audience and how can I manage the schedules of 9 other people who live scattered around the United States. We like festivals for that reason, you can meet a lot of people all at one go. It's better than a tour where we are likely to play for only 10 or 15 people at each show.

7) Is there any possibility in the future of seeing release of a DVD of the band in concert, for those how have not had the chance to see the band live?

PX: We have recorded some of our shows on multicamera, but in one case the audio was partially lost. We "patched" it up but that's not entirely honest. The good news was that the drums and vocals were intact. The second show had problematic camera work. It was hard to cut it together without it looking very cheap. In that instance all the cameras had several people in each shot, so any time you wanted to focus on another member there was a piece of the person you'd just been seeing. It was odd to the eyes and didn't really live up to my hopes. I would like to stage a show where we can record a DVD and focus on making a good DVD of a live performance, with multiple takes, great sound and camera work that can be mapped out ahead of time. That would interest me, as a multi media experience.

8) What can you tell us about the progress on 7 1/2? Will we see it released this year?

PX: 7½ has morphed into another album which we now call "Snowtorch" which is a single song cycle type of thing. It grew out of a song that was slated to appear on . However, that song took over and we began to explore and expand and before we knew it, Snowtorch was born. Once we had evolved that song (or group of songs) everything else that we'd planned and recorded for seemed not to work alongside. Therefore, we have cancelled as a concept and are officially preparing to release our 8th album as "Snowtorch". All the other songs which were intended for will now appear on an odds and sods/compilation album called "A Brief History Of Stuff And Nonsense" which is a retrospective album of some of our more accesible material ganged up with a second disc of unreleased material. I hope both of these albums will be released this year. And soon!

9) What would you say is the general overarching theme of The Great Leap and Doomsday Afternoon, the first two acts of your album trilogy?

PX: Those two albums deal with a Big Brother type of world in which ecological disaster and biotech/genetic manipulation run rampant. It also deals with life in a dystopian and deadend world. There are themes which thread through, such as alienation, civil disobedience, love and survival. It's all filtered through with a bit of biblical allegory. The last act will seek to redeem the humanity of our species.

10) What are your plans for the concluding chapter in that album trilogy?

PX: I plan to rehearse the album with the full band to help develop it in a slightly different way. Normally we record in bits and catch as catch can. With "Infernal" (which is comprised of two songs - Infernal and Eternal) I would like to rehearse the full album as though we were going to perform it live. Live with the music a little before we commit it to recording. I'm also giving it some more time to gestate. The plan is to release it on December 21, 2012 to capitalize on the psychic energy going on around the conclusion of the Mayan calendar. People think this is the so-called end of the world, but it's really just the end of an era. It seems a good date to push for given the material. And, of course it's all a big goof and laugh which we love to have.

11) Are you still considering releasing a compilation similar to "A Brief History Of Stuff and Nonsense" as mentioned on your blog?

PX: Yes.

12) If you could pick one of your albums as a starting point for someone unfamiliar with your music, which one would it be, and why?

PX: People seem to gravitate to Doomsday Afternoon although the song seems to be "Chupacabras". However, the rest of the Chupacabras album is a bit patchy. It's our first odds and sods album and isn't all that cohesive.

13) In your 'free time,' are there any (newer or older) bands or artists that you've listened to and found particularly exciting or that you can't get out of your head?

PX: I am sad to say that I don't really listen to a lot of music when I'm in the mode of making my own. I love a lot of the new music that I hear coming from the modern progressive rock movement, but I don't focus on a lot of it too deeply because I don't want to crib any ideas and get too scattered by all those wonderful things being produced. It gets overwhelming to me. I am friends with a talented Stick player named Rob Martino. I listen to his album, which is very peaceful and complex at the same time. I also listen to old folk music, and several of my childhood favourites. I have to say that I've gotten stuck on Mike Oldfield's reissue of "Ommadawn". That never ages!

14) Are there any final words or thoughts you'd like to share with our readers?

PX: Well, I'd like to thank people who have taken the time to listen to our music. And especially I'd like to thank you if you've contacted us, or written an encouraging note. We definitely like to hear from people because it can get lonely making the music in a vacuum. I grew up as a massive consumer of music. I have loved it from the time I was a small child, so I know what it is like to be a listener and I'm grateful that some people have added our music to the playlist of their life. Thank you for spreading the word, I'm often hearing from new people in odd corners of the world (odd from my perspective in the US!). It's humbling and gratifying to reach across the various boundaries and connect with people from different cultures and other landscapes. I'd love to play concerts in other countries!

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Glenn said...

Phideaux also happens to be one of the kindest and nicest people you could ever want to meet.

Anonymous said...

Great interview, thanks Phideux and Bill!!! -- Kerry

Amanda said...

Wow Phideaux....thanks for the mention!

Manu said...

Nice interview :) I happened to interview Phideaux too yesteray.