10 September 2010

(More than) 10 questions with...Michael Pruchnicki of Relocator

(Photo: Michael Pruchnicki [front] and Stefan Artwin)

As I mentioned in my review of Relocator’s debut album a month ago…

…as a member of the MP.com forum, I’ve watched the long, arduous process for a year or two at least. It was a pleasant thing to see the album finally reach fruition…

Watching new bands form and begin the often long and arduous journey toward their first recorded output is sometimes painful, as false start compounds with disagreement and something that seemed so simple suddenly starts to become so much less than. Finally seeing the debut album out in the wild offered this viewer an opportunity to feel some relief, tho certainly not to the same degree as the guys in Relocator felt. The fact that the album has been so widely praised is simply evidence of how much their work has been rewarded.

Usually when I’m setting up with a band to review an album, I toss out the opportunity for an interview as well…I enjoy finding out more about how bands work and how musicians ply their trade, and I figure it’ll offer listeners some added insight into their favourite players. Michael Pruchnicki was enthused by the idea, offering to get the rest of the band involved as well…until he saw the questions. I got a quick reply back from him stating “I think I'll tackle all of those questions myself.”

As always, My thanks to Michael for taking the time to answer these questions; his answers are expansive and insightful, and y hope is you’ll enjoy this interview as much as I did!

1. The Relocator website does a great job of listing members’ influences; what was it that first drove you to want to play, rather than who might have inspired your individual playing?

Michael Pruchnicki: That's a really cool question! It's not easy to answer because I'm sure there were several factors involved, but I'll try: Back in 1998 I had just moved to Nuremberg and hardly knew anyone outside my new office, so I wanted to do something productive with my free time. Back then I was still new to prog, listening to a lot of Dream Theater, Liquid Tension Experiment and Rush, and to me one of the biggest difference between the music that I knew and prog was that the bass was actually playing interesting stuff most of the time. I became more and more interested the instrument, so when I decided to start playing music again (I had taken piano lessons as a kid, but that seemed like an eternity ago), I bought a bass guitar first. A regular guitar and a keyboard followed, but the bass has remained my instrument of choice.

2. How did the members of Relocator originally get together?

MP: The band was founded when I joined our guitarist Stefan Artwin and former drummer Vito Lis. They had previously worked together on a few tracks recorded by a band called Delta Cyphei Project and at the time they were just jamming with a keyboardist (his name escapes me). The keyboardist was mostly into 70s stuff and wanted to play either covers or his own compositions while I was interested in creating more modern and original material, so they ended the jam sessions with the other guy and Relocator was born – that was in the summer of 2004. We had quite a few personnel changes in the years that followed, mostly keyboard players coming and going, but toward the end of the band's life I wasn't even a member anymore (although I had been asked to record some bass for the album). In October 2008, after months of delays regarding the album's release, Stefan ended the collaboration with Vito and that was the end of the original band.

Stefan didn't want anything to do with the material for a while, he was very frustrated with the whole situation, but I convinced him to finish and release the songs he had written. The original idea was to make a Stefan Artwin solo album, but once we started collaborating more closely, we realized that this was a logical continuation of Relocator. But we didn't want to start a new band – this time it would be a project. We wanted to avoid the usual bullshit that comes with having to keep everyone in a band happy. It would spare us annoying discussions about the musical direction, we wouldn't have regular rehearsals (four years of that had hardly helped the music progress) and we wouldn't have to waste time searching for the right people in our region. I had already gotten Frank Tinge from the Netherlands on board to record drums for our CD, so by the time we announced the rebirth of Relocator, we had the core group for the album in place.

A few weeks later we had some early drum takes from Frank and quite a few keyboard tracks from Derek Sherinian and the music was sounding quite a bit heavier than the demos. I decided that we should add another element to counterbalance the spacey prog metal and contacted Bartek Strycharski, an excellent electric violinist with whom I had played once before, just before joining Relocator. Stefan and I met with Bartek and he liked the music, so he agreed to become part of the project – he even recorded some violin tracks for a near-finished demo of The Alchemist the same evening.

3. What would you say that you bring to the table for the band that differs from anyone else in the group?

MP: A good memory ("Remember how you played that part on the demo take from mid-March?") and a good idea of "the big picture" (“You can go crazy in that last measure, Derek left some space for a big fill there!”). Both very helpful when you're recording an album's various parts independently and constantly making changes to the material. I'm also the most picky and demanding one of us. It can drive people mad (me included), but with music as intricate as ours I think it was really helpful.

4. How did you get Derek Sherinian to guest on the whole album?

MP: In early 2008 Relocator had a mostly complete album, but there was a falling out with a former keyboard player who had recorded several solos for the CD. It was decided to scrap his parts and to look for someone to fill the gaps in the songs. Around the same time, Derek Sherinian had begun advertising his services as a session musician on his website, so I suggested asking him. Derek liked the music and agreed to record some solos for the album.

About a year later, after we had relaunched Relocator as a project, we were recording our CD and there was an all-new track that I wanted to have a keyboard solo over a verse section (The Alchemist). We got in touch with Derek Sherinian once again and started talking. Maybe once Derek was at it, he could also record a bunch of short synth lead melodies here and there? One thing lead to another and pretty soon we were discussing the idea of having Derek record all of the remaining keyboard parts as well. With real bass throughout, the songs were sounding fuller and more professional than any of the previous Relocator tracks and the MIDI keyboards Stefan had programmed for the demos were sounding more and more out of place... In the end we decided that if we were going to do this, we should do it right to maximize the impact of our debut album – so Derek ended up recording keys for the entire CD!

5. Can you explain a little bit about how the material for your debut release came together?

MP: Stefan had been working on instrumental progressive tracks even before the band came together. Shortly after we decided to start Relocator, he brought in four very elaborate demos: Red Vibes, Urban Blue (at that time called Red Vibes II – they were parts of a longer composition originally), Relocator and 13 Reasons. They were quite close to what ended up on the album – in fact, in some cases we went back to the original demos and undid some changes that had developed during rehearsals but that neither Stefan nor I were happy with.

The next batch of songs was introduced several months later, it included a space-themed trilogy and the song that would later become known as Aavishkar (the working title was Taj Mahal). While Aavishkar stayed pretty close to the original idea, the other tracks went through massive changes. The first track, Alpha Centauri, was later scrapped because we felt it didn't quite fit on the album – but we really loved the ending, more on that later. The second track, Beta Centauri, was almost completely rewritten and later became Biosphere. The only thing that remained from the original demo is the section from 1:27 to 2:20. The third track was Proxima Centauri. The only part of it that we kept was half the title – Proxima as it ended up on the CD sounds nothing like the original piece.

While we were finalizing the arrangements of those tracks for the album, I wrote a few additional bits like the ending run for Red Vibes or the intro for Relocator. I think I wrote little bits for most songs on the CD, but in many cases they were based on Stefan's original ideas, so we felt they didn't warrant a co-writing credit. I also made some changes to some song structures. For example, I played a big part in shaping the second half of 13 Reasons, writing the bass and rhythm guitar interplay during the mellow build-up section and slashing a part that I felt disturbed the song's flow. I also arranged most of the ending with the guitar melody from the "U.K. break" (as we call it) leading right into the final verse and the solo leading into the fast synth run and the short reprise of the opening keyboard part – while all of that is based on Stefan's original ideas, the last minute of the song was really put together by me and I'm very happy with the way this ending turned out!

The last track to be written was The Alchemist. Stefan had been working on that one for a while, but he still needed a good ending when we started recording the CD. It was around that time that we agreed that Alpha Centauri wouldn't really fit on the album. I half-jokingly suggested dropping the song but keeping its ending, and in the end that was exactly what we did! I worked an idea from the ending into the song's chorus to make it all more coherent and it worked out perfectly. We not only had a great ending to the new song, we had the perfect ending for the album, too!

Since the first Alchemist demo wasn't quite as elaborate as the old material, I had more influence on the song's development, so I feel it's most indicative of a potential future direction for Relocator. It's only natural that I can say most about this song's creation. Most of the ideas and the basic structure from the original demo remained, but I had Stefan significantly beef up the verse section that later ended up with a Derek Sherinian solo on top. We were sending ideas inspired by Nevermore and Meshuggah back and forth before settling on the final riffs. The two verse sections were almost identical in the original demo, but I wanted the second one to be very different, aiming for a mellow Gordian Knot or Jim Matheos - "Away With Words" kind of thing. Stefan's first attempt at something like that featured acoustic guitar with a really cool e-bow solo on top, but then Bartek joined our project and Derek Sherinian recorded a beautiful piano track for this section, so we decided to put the focus on piano and violin instead. Since we now had this almost acoustic section, I suggested inserting an acoustic version of the chorus with the violin taking the lead before going electric again, which resulted in one of my favorite sequences on the album. I also put together the transitional section that starts with the reprise of the Meshuggah-type riff and ends with just the drums playing before the finale begins. I was another case of creating something exciting out of previously used elements, in this case replacing a fairly chaotic section that I always referred to as a "riff-o-rama." Another detail that gives you a good idea of how we collaborated is the finale itself – while most of it was written by Stefan, the violin part on top of everything was one of the last things to be added. It was originally developed by me on fretless bass. I've had that countermelody in my head for months and it was great to hear Bartek play it in the end! I think it was a very successful musical collaboration.

6. Relocator went through a long gestation process; did that effect the material that finally got picked for the release?

MP: Massively. I already gave some examples in my previous answer, with several songs not making the cut, but even that is only half the story: The first original song we played together was originally recorded with vocals! It was a song called Under Water, later released as Waterdream on the free download album 4elements by Delta Cyphei Project. We were often talking about creating a real instrumental version of it one day, but it never happened. We actually auditioned some singers over the years, so the musical direction wasn't always as clear as it is now. There was also another song that we played written by one of the keyboardists who played with us. Obviously it never got played again after he had left the band.

7. How would you say reaction has been to this release?

MP: Extremely positive! Of course you can't please everyone, especially when your music doesn't have vocals, but so far I can count the people who gave us less enthusiastic feedback on one hand which is really quite astonishing considering the number of reviews and comments we've been getting. Some of the things people have written about our album go beyond what I would dare to write in a press release – they're so flattering they make me blush!

8. Do you have a particular favourite piece from the album? If so, what makes it more special to you?

MP: I have a few, but if I had to pick one, it would definitely be The Alchemist. I had more to do with its creation than with any of the other songs, it is the most dynamic track (going from piano-backed violin to Meshuggah-style riffing), it showcases Bartek's electric violin best and I'm just very proud of its structure – I think it's pretty rare for a 11:30 song to really feel like one coherent piece and not just a collection of nicely connected shorter ideas. And to me it always feels a lot shorter than 11:30, too.

9. What lessons have you learned from the process of releasing Relocator’s debut that might influence any future work?

MP: Musically, for me the main lesson was to be very wary of comments like "No, that will do! Just wait, it'll all sound very different once we add the real drum tracks / the real keyboards / the whatever" – we could've saved a lot of time if we had done everything right from the start.

Otherwise, the main lesson was that no matter how positive the feedback is, nobody will take notice of your album unless you find good ways to market it – and marketing takes a lot of time and effort (sometimes money, too)! Much more than I thought it would, really. So if you think you can just release an album and lean back and wait for success to come knocking at your door, you might as well not release anything.

10. Is there any possibility that the band can or will play live?

MP: Yes! In fact we were going to play a series of gigs throughout Europe in October, but sadly that didn't quite work out (it was out of our hands, really). Now the idea is to team up with some other prog bands and put together a short tour in the spring. We're also hoping to score a slot at one of the prog festivals, but we realize that the competition is tough and we're not exactly a household name, so it won't be easy. But there definitely is a live band ready to play Relocator music now! We are very happy to have found a keyboard player who will join us for these gigs and if the schedule works out, we'll even have a second guitarist with us, so we'll be able to stay pretty close to the album's dense arrangements. It's ironic that the chance of us playing live is much higher now than it was while Relocator was a regular band.

11. Much has been said in many places about the effects of illegal downloading on musicians, both independent and on major labels. How would you say torrents, blogs with downloads, or whatever have affected your band?

MP: It has affected us in two ways: On the one hand, we have gained quite a few listeners in countries where our CD isn't easily available or where people couldn't really afford an original CD anyway. Now, I don't think this will lead to a market for Relocator live gigs in, say, Russia as some piracy-defenders would have you believe, but it's hard to get worked up over some poor guy listening to your music for free. On the other hand, the websites that are used to spread the music are easily found and so they have certainly cost us many sales from people who definitely could afford to pay but simply chose not to. That's pretty sad. I know many people say that the artists should be happy that people are spreading their music, but there are other ways to do that. Everyone can listen to our full album on our MySpace or Facebook pages before they decide to pay for it.

12. What’s next for Relocator? Is this going to be a one-off project or is there more in the works?

MP: We are already working on material for our second album. Stefan and I remain as the core of the project, but it's not clear yet who the other players will be. It really depends on the songs and so far it's still too early to say what kind of approach we'll be looking for – will the violin play a bigger role this time? Will we need a keyboard player? Maybe we'll want to add some other instruments? We don't want to stray too far from the debut's style because it's just natural for us, but on the other hand we don't want to repeat ourselves musically, so we're trying to think of ways to keep things interesting for everyone. In any case, we see Relocator as an opportunity to work with some great musicians and we've already contacted some about playing on our second CD (some have actually contacted us, too!), so it's all pretty exciting for us. The material has been coming together slower than anticipated, but we hope to have the album recorded next year!

13. Influences are good for seeing where a band or musicians came from; what music is blowing you away today?

MP: I've been enjoying some very strong debut albums recently: Haken's Aquarius (fresh and quirky prog metal) and the self-titled discs from Exivious and Animals as Leaders (both dense instrumental fusion/metal albums). Other than that, my favorite CD of the past few years was Cynic's comeback album Traced in Air and I try to catch jazz/fusion pianist Hiromi Uehara in concert whenever I can – her playing and wonderful stage presence have blown me away many times!

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

MP: Don't believe the popular stories that bands never make any real money off CD sales and that touring is where it's at. Sure, if you're Bon Jovi or even Dream Theater, that may be the case. Sadly, in many cases the same people who keep talking about the music industry's “outdated business model“ keep spreading those established bands' stories about the financial situation when in fact they are just as outdated and have very little to do with the reality that an independent artist faces these days. When you sell your music directly or via stores like CD Baby as we do, you get to keep a lot of the money from a CD sale, so every lost sale really hurts! We're not talking the small potatoes that someone with a “classic” major label contract would make, we're talking more than 10 Euro in some cases! And if you can get gigs at all playing uncommercial music like prog (and that's a big if!), it's very difficult to tour and not lose money. Travel costs, hotel costs, the venue's and the promoter's share, the typically tiny prog crowds – just do the math! There's a reason why even a band like the Flower Kings regularly loses money touring.

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