24 August 2010

(WAY More Than) 10 Questions with...Mars Hollow

Mars Hollow burst out onto the prog scene this year via their self-titled debut album on 10T Records. Those among you with good memories will remember that I covered this release a short bit ago on Bill’s Prog Blog (click here if you’d like to re-read the review: http://billsprogblog.blogspot.com/2010/07/cd-review-mars-hollow-mars-hollow-10t.html), with some very favourable things to say about it.

The band has not been resting on their collective laurels…they just played what was, by all accounts, a stormer of a set at Mexicali Prog, and are also due to play this year’s Progday festival at Storybook Farm in Chapel Hill North Carolina. They’re also working up material for their sophomore album, which we may be lucky enough to see next year.

Bassist Kerry Chiccone is a presence on prog forums everywhere; it has stopped surprising me when I see a post from him somewhere I frequent. It seemed a pretty reasonable thing to ask him for an interview to discuss the band, the album and what Mars Hollow was planning next. I was pleased to find out that not only was he interested, but the rest of the band was as well. This was an opportunity not to look askew at, so obviously I leapt at it. How they fit the interview in around rehearsals for Mexicali and Progday, writing sessions, and so on, I don’t know. I’m just glad they did!

(And, I have to add…if they’d gone on at greater length, I might have had to break this into a 2-parter!)

Sit back, relax, and join me on a journey to the world of Mars Hollow!

1. Let's start things off by asking this: what got you interested in music originally?

Jerry Beller: My dad was an LA studio musician so I had an early start on music; I started listening to big band music and pop of the 50's then got into Beatles, Hendrix, Cream and so on until I discovered progressive rock; some of my favorite bands are ELP, Yes, Rush, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant, Genesis, Kansas, and PFM.

John Baker: For young guys, the guitar is almost like a motorcycle or fire truck; I chose guitar and music rather than motorcycles or fire trucks.

Kerry Chicoine: My older sister was into the Beatles back in the day; she turned me on to rock-n-roll and I've never looked back. Music is what I've always wanted to do, ever since I can remember.

2. What would you say are your biggest influences as a musician?

Jerry: As far as drumming goes, I've been influenced by Buddy Rich, Carl Palmer, Neil Peart, Barriemore Barlow, Bill Bruford, Alan White, Louie Bellson, Simon Phillips and of course Ringo Starr.

Kerry: The majority of my musical influences stem from listening to '60s and '70s AM radio as a child - bubblegum pop (Monkees, Osmonds, Jackson 5), jazz-pop (Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell), hard rock (ie. Alice Cooper, Boston, Queen), and traditional pop (i.e. Bread, Bacharach, Beach Boys, Beatles).

When I was in my early teens progressive rock caught my ear; I saw Emerson, Lake and Palmer's televised performance at the first Cal Jam and was absolutely floored, walled and window'd. I'd never heard such exciting music in my life up to that point, and I loved everything about it. From there, I got into Yes, Genesis, bands of that ilk, and also some progressive pop like Styx and Kansas. The expanded playing field of progressive rock appealed to my sense of adventure.

3. Prior to being part of Mars Hollow, what were your experiences as a musician?

Kerry: I spent about 15 happy years writing songs and recording at home; that was my main focus, just developing my craft. In 1998, I decided to "come out" as a musician (LOL) and, at the urging of some friends, joined forces with another local songwriter and formed the power-pop band Receiver. We got a reasonable amount of attention but by that time I was growing restless with the limitations of power-pop and wanted to branch out. I had just heard Mike Keneally's music and thought, "Hey, this is for me, all this musical freedom!" I joined forces with a handful of local bands and eventually found myself playing alongside Ryo Okumoto. That's where I met Jerry and the rest is revisionist history.

4. How did Mars Hollow first get together?

Steve Mauk: I met Jerry Beller back in the spring of 2007 when he put an ad in a local musician's classified looking for a progressive rock keyboard player. He and our bass player, Kerry, had been playing in an Emerson, Lake and Palmer tribute band, and they had also played with Ryo Okumoto, the keyboard player for Spock's Beard. We started writing together and it really kind of clicked so we started looking for a guitar player. Kerry had to take some time off though, so through more classified ads we found another bass player and John. We were blown away with John's talent -- he could write, play amazing guitar AND be lead vocalist. As luck would have it, Kerry was able to come back in spring 2008 and the rest as they say is history.

5. How did the band first hook up with 10T Records, and decide to release your debut album through them?

John: Kerry's tenacity!

Kerry: We were planning on going the CD Baby route but after getting some positive feedback from our demos, we decided to check around and see if any indie labels would be interested. CD Baby is fantastic but we thought with a little marketing muscle, we could draw more attention to the album with a label.

We shopped the album to a few of the usual prog-rock labels and were offered a contract right out of the gate, which was encouraging. The good folks at 10T Records had been on my radar for awhile so I contacted an old internet friend of mine -- Steve Katsikas of the awesome 10T Records band Little Atlas -- and he was very encouraging with regard to us pursuing a deal with 10T. The best way to get a feel for a label is to speak with some of their artists, right? Steve Katsikas was crucial in helping us get a foot in the door and for that we're eternally grateful.

10T Records principals Steve Carroll and Jeff Hodges liked our songs and decided to take a chance on us; we're exceptionally happy with the results and we're really stoked to be part of their excellent roster. To be alongside such bands as Frogg Cafe and The Rebel Wheel is truly flattering.

6. Can you tell us a little bit about the creative process in Mars Hollow? Not so much 'where do you get your ideas?' but rather 'once you have your ideas, how do you shape them into Mars Hollow music?

Jerry: The creative process is really straight ahead; someone comes in with an idea and we all put our thoughts into it; sometimes it works and sometimes not. Some parts are used in other songs or brought back later to be incorporated in another way; occasionally someone will bring in a complete song, but we all put our spin on it and next thing you know, it's a Mars Hollow song. For the most part we write as a band; the sum is greater than the parts - if we're lucky.

Kerry: I have to give a shout-out to our producer, Ronan Chris Murphy. When I sent him the Mars Hollow demos, he expressed interest and became involved in the pre-production (as well as actually producing, engineering, mixing and mastering). Ronan really helped us streamline our approach and helped us realize the importance of a good, solid groove. The guy has fantastic ears not only for sonics, but for songwriting, and we owe him a huge debt of gratitude for taking a chance on us and helping us craft a solid album.

7. What would you say each member of the band brings to the table that contributes to the Mars Hollow entity as a whole?

Kerry: In a nutshell, Steve Mauk and John Baker bring the bulk of the melodic ideas and riffs; those two guys have written so much stuff I barely write anymore LOL. Jerry propels the band and gives the songs rhythmic definition; he's also got a fantastic ear for arrangements and he'll often suggest a change or transition. My main role - as well as everyone else's to a certain extent, depending on the song -- is arranging our various ideas into something resembling a song. Occasionally I'll write an ending or a bridge or whatever's needed to make the song coalesce. John writes the majority of the lyrics and I'll come up with lyrics whenever I'm inspired - a band can never have too many lyrics LOL. It's truly a collaboration in every sense of the word and at the end of the day, the resulting songs stem from the collective efforts of the whole band.

8. Now that the first album has been released, what would you say are the long-term goals Mars Hollow is working toward?

Steve: Priority number one is writing and recording our second album; number two is getting out on the road playing festivals, private shows, whatever opportunities come our way. We've been blessed with an invitation to play both Mexicali Prog and ProgDay, so we're reaching our goals one step at a time.

We've been talking to Billy Sherwood about producing the next album and are very excited about the opportunity to work with him. We have most of the album written already, and truly believe the songwriting is every bit as good as the debut and that we will have a solid follow up release. We're really only just starting to get our sea-legs when it comes to songwriting as a band and we're excited about the possibilities.

9. What kind of response has the album gotten thus far?

John: The reception of this first record has been almost unbelievable and truly unexpected for us. We're still wrapping our minds around how it really fits in to the world of prog and the timing of future records and shows.

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

Jerry: I would pick "Wait for Me" or "Dawn of Creation" -- those two are indicative of we can do with longer-format songs. If you're more of a melodic pop fan then "Midnight" or "If I Were You" would be my choice; if you like epics AND melodic pop, "Eureka" would likely fit the bill. I think it all depends on the person and their tastes.

11. Can you tell us a little bit about the live music scene in your area? Does the band get much opportunity to play out?

Kerry: This being Los Angeles, on any given night there are dozens of bands at various levels in the business playing anywhere from The Whiskey to the Staples Center, so drawing a decent crowd can be a real challenge. Sometimes, you get a good draw and other times, not so decent.

The live music scene is very much alive (pun intended) and continues to ebb and flow as it always has; there are many co-existing scenes and, unfortunately, the progressive rock scene isn't among the most popular LOL, although there is a great potential fan base here. How to draw prog-rock fans to shows is something we've been working on and I'm happy to say each of our local gigs has drawn more than the previous, so that's a good start. We're hoping to play CalProg one of these days; that would go a long way to helping establish a presence in Southern California.

12. Mars Hollow recently was signed to play ProgDay 2010. What was your reaction to the request to play?

Steve: We were absolutely thrilled! One of our goals has been to take our live show out to the festival circuit. We are excited to share the same stage at ProgDay with prog rock legends Flash and share in the legacy of amazing bands that ProgDay has showcased. We understand it can get a little bit hot in North Carolina in the summer so we are bringing our shorts and sunglasses! Stay tuned for some upcoming announcements about 2011 festival appearances...

13. Your record label recently released a compilation called Undercover, where label artists each tacked a cover of a classic tune. If you'd participated, what song would you want to cover, and why?

Kerry: I know this might be interpreted as being ungrateful, and I truly don't mean to negate the influence of the bands we've known and loved, but we're not much interested in interpreting anyone else's material at this stage of the game. We're having too much fun writing our own material and forging our own path, and, seriously, does the world really need another prog-rock cover?

That said, if pressed, I'd love to take a shot at Transatlantic's "Duel With the Devil", assuming it's considered a "classic" (it is in my book). But then again, how does one go about improving on the original?

14. We all know that illegal downloading of music is an ongoing problem. How has it affected Mars Hollow?

Jerry: We're well aware of file sharing; there are a LOT of sites out there, that's the reality of the times we live in. It's very time-consuming to try to curtail these folks and, at the end of the day, we do what we can (within reason) to keep control of our music. I'm pretty sure it's had an affect on CD sales but who really knows?

On the other hand, it's another avenue of exposure and we're grateful to those people who spread the word. It's a catch-22 and we try not to sweat it too much.

15. What do you think the future of progressive music is?

Kerry: In order for this genre to progress, we need more bands doing something uniquely their own rather than trying to sound like other relatively popular bands. A band like Radiohead is awesome and unique but there's only room for one, you know? And a lot of it depends on the fans; if they're willing to embrace bands who sound like their influences, then the genre will suffer from musical in-breeding as a result. It'll end up being the musical equivalent of the banjo player from "Deliverance" LOL.

For this genre to have a viable, vibrant future, we need more bands that are willing to put songwriting first, to trust their own instincts, and to forget about trying to plow someone else's fields, if you catch my meaning.

When that happens - and it's happening now with some great new bands - it will ensure this genre has a future. The thing I love about prog-rock is there are really no limitations, anything is possible, any direction is valid; with prog, the sky's the limit. The hard part is getting airborne.

16. Are there any bands or albums you're listening to these days that really blow you away?

Kerry: I've been really getting into Alex Machacek's collaboration with Marco Minnemann ("24 Tales") lately.

Steve: I have recently discovered the band IQ and have been really enjoying listening to "Ever" and "Subterranea". I love their chord progressions and arrangements. I also have been listening a lot to the new Spock's Beard.

17. So what's next for Mars Hollow?

John: More writing for future records and expanding our live show. We're hoping to do a lot more traveling, writing and recording.

18. As we wrap things up, do you have any final words for us?

Jerry: We are very happy with the relative success of this CD and the support of the fans; we hope the word will continue to spread and that progressive rock will continue to enjoy an attentive and appreciative audience; I'd like to see "prog" regain the level of popularity it had back in the 70's; it would be great to have interesting music back the limelight again.

Kerry: Thanks so, so much to everyone who's believed in and supported us in various ways -- we take this very seriously and we're looking at Mars Hollow as a long-term project and not a flash-in-the-pan; I think there's a lot of potential for development and we hope our fans continue to enjoy the ride alongside us!

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