09 December 2010

More than 10 Questions with...James Byron Schoen of Edensong

People who have read my review of Edensong’s Echoes of Edensong know full well how much this band’s music has touched me.  Sitting down with founder member James Byron Schoen was something I felt I needed to do on a number of levels; the combination of striking visuals, packaging, and intense lyrical themes left me wanting to understand more.

James had been very busy with preparations for a small series of shows, as well as filming and production of the band’s concept video for the song ‘Beneath the Tide,’ but found the time somehow to answer (expansively, I might add!) my questions.

I want to thank him for his time and his patience…and if you get a chance, go see the band live!  I’ve got some info coming in a bit about some upcoming shows, including one tonight (it’s not too late for tickets!)

1 To start things off, when did you first discover a love of music?

This is going pretty far back.  I've been writing and recording music as far back as I can remember (probably since I was about 4 or so).  I remember being initially inspired by a PBS TV show called "The Letter People," where each character (Mrs. A, Mr. B and so on) had his/her own song.  Being the clever little boy I was, I created the number people songs!  The really early stuff was almost entirely improvisational (and terrible, of course).  I recently discovered some really old cassettes in the attic that documented my music making through the years, from early childhood on through early demos with my high school band Echoes of Eden.  I started more thoughtfully composing my music around age 7 or 8 during a period of obsession with Michael Jackson (purely platonic, I assure you).  Around this time, I "released" my first full solo album "Desert Storm" and sold four copies in my fourth grade class.  So yeah, music has always been a major driving force in my life.

2 As you started finding your own voice musically, what bands or artists were influential for you?

I'd have to say I began to develop a more sensible and sophisticated taste in music around 6th grade (though, I'll defend my childhood love of Billy Joel, The Beatles, and even Michael Jackson), when I started getting into the Alternative Rock of the day (the early 90s grunge bands plus Aerosmith, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Greenday, Nine Inch Nails etc.).  The next year, I started digging through my dad's old record collection and became a student of classic rock and prog (I suppose it took me a while to define this term, but I guess a lot of of us are still struggling with it).  I found Jethro Tull, Yes, Cat Stevens, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix etc.  The former three plus the Metallica, Rush, and Dream Theater that my friend Tony (drummer of Edensong) introduced me to around the same time are probably most responsible for influencing the music that I went on to make. 

3 How did Edensong first come together?

Once upon a time there was a band of high school kids called Echoes of Eden.  We played our own blend of progressive metal, influenced heavily by the Metallica, Rush, and Dream Theater we were listening to at the time.  We released an album called "Beneath the Tide" in 2000, started writing and recording demos for some follow up material (really cool stuff, actually) and then disbanded as we all headed off to different colleges.  After playing some more acoustically oriented solo material for a while freshman year, I made my first post-high school attempts at putting a band together.  The origin story is actually on our website and various other websites, but I'll give a short recap here.  A friend of mine suggested mounting a full on multimedia rock opera with funding from the school's student theater organization, so I formed a house band to play a bunch of my songs, both from Echoes of Edensong and electrified versions of the accostic stuff I'd been writing more recently (a lot of this stuff went on to make up "The Fruit Fallen").  At first, I continued to call the band Echoes of Eden but eventually settled upon Edensong before graduating.  The lineup shifted a lot in those days, and it actually wasn't until after "The Fruit Fallen" was released that I really found the right group of musicians for the band and this music.

4 How difficult was it pulling together the material for The Fruit Fallen, Edensong's first album?

Pulling the material together really wasn't too difficult at all.  Ever since the original Echoes of Eden broke up in 2001, I had been writing material on my own.  As you can imagine, I had accumulated a lot of music.  It wasn't until the summer of 2004 that I had really made up my mind to make another album.  I knew I wouldn't have the budget to work in a "real" studio, nor did I want to entrust the outcome of the album to a producer or engineer who had little creative investment in the project (I knew this would be an album heavy in studio hours, fine-tuning the arrangements, adding layers, working on sonic details etc.), so I bought some recording equipment and brushed up on my recording skills so I could record the album myself.  It turned out to be a good choice, as the trials and errors of "The Fruit Fallen" led to my developing some engineering chops and launching my own recording business, which has thus far sustained me financially and allowed me to continue on my path with Edensong.

5 Listening to the album, there seems to be a strong theme running through the material.  Is there any insight you can provide there?

Lyrical theme?  There are probably a few that you're picking up on.  Overall, it's a pretty dark album.  There are quite a few tracks that deal pretty heavily with illness and death.  You might also be picking up on some religious themes in the lyrics, and especially the song titles ("The Prayer," "The Sixth Day," "The Baptism" etc.).  At the time, writing music was catharsis for me.  I tended to write about the problems that I saw in the world and those affecting the people around me.  It actually makes an interesting juxtaposition with the album Beneath the Tide I wrote with Echoes of Eden back in high school.  Beneath the Tide dealt largely with themes of innocence, youth and redemption, whereas the Fruit Fallen is often about the uglier and darker side of life.  This shift was pretty reflective of what was going on in my own life at the time, dealing with failed relationships, family illness, the death of childhood friends etc.  I suppose the Fruit Fallen was a bit of a coming of age CD for me.

6 Have you or the band caught any negative response over some of the lyrical content (songs like 'The Sixth Day,' for example)? 

Not too much.  I'm sure there are plenty of people who aren't too thrilled with the lyrics from that song, but I tend to only hear from the people who really like them.  I've been told by quite a few people that "The Sixth Day" is their favorite song on "The Fruit Fallen."  It's one of mine as well, and I think it's a song that really shines on the stage rather than in the studio version.  I did however stumble upon some review on progarchives of an album  by Neal Morse (an artist I really admire), comparing his tasteful treatment of religious themes in his music to Edensong's opposite blunt and hackneyed treatment in this song, so we're certainly not making everyone happy (I was pretty psyched, however, to see a mention of Edensong in the review!).  At the time I wrote this, I was examining the role of organized religion in our everyday lives, the reasons people turn to God, and the unfortunate divisiveness and intolerance that religion can breed.  I'm generally pretty reserved and not somebody who feels a need to be provocative, shocking, or divisive, but it's a topic I'm pretty passionate about.  I'm not sure if I would write the same song today, but I'm certainly glad I did at the time.

7 How easy or hard has it been to translate the fairly layered compositions to the stage?

There are definitely certain challenges to bringing this music to the stage, both technical and musical.  Even with six band members on stage, it's impossible for us to perform all the layers from the album.  While we tend to stay pretty faithful to the arrangements from the CDs, we will sometimes need to eliminate certain background layers, or move them from the guitar to another instrument (Stefan, our keyboardist, often has to cover all the keyboard parts plus pick up any of the important guitar parts from the recording that I'm unable to play at any given time).  The constant shift between acoustic and electric guitar also posed a bit of a challenge at first, but has been made wonderfully easy since I started using my Godin xtSA guitar with simultaneous electric and acoustic (piezo) outputs (In the old days I had to keep my acoustic guitars on player stands and wear my electric guitar.  I was always bashing them up or knocking them over and it was terrible for my playing technique.  This way I can play acoustic, electric, or any blend thereof and adjust this on the fly by stepping on a volume pedal).  Musically, I'd say the most challenging aspect of the live show is the often abrupt transitions in our music.  We'll need to shift tempos and/or textures immediately, and the two are often completely unrelated.  We also try to focus a good deal on the dynamics of our live show, so all of these important nuances require a lot of rehearsal.

8 Has there been a moment that stands out as a particular highlight for you with the band, live or what have you?

Thus far, I'd have to say the biggest point of arrival in our career would have to be our performance at Three Rivers Progressive Rock Festival in August 2009.  There were other moments that felt like personal accomplishments, such as the release of the Fruit Fallen after many years of hard work, but playing at 3RP was the moment where I felt I was no longer creating music in a vacuum and got an opportunity to share this stuff with the world, and people actually seemed to care!  It was our first real show, especially with the post-Fruit Fallen lineup, and it was our first time playing with bands we'd actually heard of!  We've gone on to have quite a few other truly memorable live experiences, but there's always something special about the first.  I'm hoping we get the opportunity to collect many many more of these career highlights!

9 Edensong just released Echoes of Edensong, a half live, half studio album.  How did this particular project come about? 

For years, I and my former bandmates from Echoes of Eden had discussed the prospect of re-recording and rereleasing some choice songs from our debut album Beneath the Tide.  We always felt strongly about the material but never felt it was captured on CD quite the way we envisioned it.  After our reunion onstage at 3RP and Tony's subsequent joining the band as our drummer, we thought the time was right to revisit some of this material.  We decided to focus our energy on the song Beneath the Tide (which we had already been playing with this lineup of Edensong), and not worry about the other few songs, which the rest of the band members weren't too crazy about in the first place.  While we were in the process of recording Beneath the Tide, I received an e-mail from Brian Cobb asking us to contribute a track for the Haiti Projekt.  I really wanted to offer something unreleased and unique to the collection and decided on "Lorelai," a song I had written many years ago for a potential concept album, but had never recorded or released.  I always liked this song a lot and it seemed thematically appropriate.  As I knew a full Edensong album of all new studio material was quite a few years off, I wanted to release something of substance for our fans (now that we actually had them!), so we decided to pair "Beneath the Tide" with "Lorelai" and include some live and unreleased tracks to round out the collection.  This CD really offers a glimpse into a band coming together, both through our live festival performances of 2009/10, but also in the studio tracks, as this was our first time working together in this creative context.  I really think that the experience of making this CD will end up making our future album stronger and more cohesive.  I've been really pleased with the response this CD has gotten thus far, both from fans and reviewers.

10 How did the two new tracks ('Beneath the Tide' and 'Lorelai') come about? 

Oh Whoops, I guess I just answered that in the last question!

11 Do you feel there are any thematic ties that connect 'Beneath the Tide' to the other songs on The Fruit Fallen? 

Not intentionally.  Since I've been writing music, I seem to have certain motifs I gravitate toward instinctively.  One such recurrent lyrical theme is water - it obviously factors heavily in "Beneath the Tide" but also makes a strong appearance on The Fruit Fallen in songs like "Water Run", "The Baptism," and "Reflection."  Additionally, I tend to have a certain way I approach song writing, specifically lyrics.  My lyrics will often follow a story;  I tend to develop a coherent narrative for the song in my mind and then begin to abstract the concepts into more "poetic" language.  This helps me to keep my lyrics focused.  It always helps for me to know what I'm talking about, even if the words disguise it a bit.

12 Both Edensong releases have distinctive packages.  How important is that to you in presenting the music? 

Visuals are very powerful for me.  I feel that our album covers are often the first thing people see when they hear about Edensong.  They may know the artwork before they even know the music.  With the "Fruit Fallen," I wanted to create the sense of an old fantasy book.  A few years ago, I bought a first edition of Alice in Wonderland and was completely captivated by the look and feel, both in the aged cover leather, yellowed pages, and musty smell, and by the illustrations and layout.  So with "The Fruit Fallen," aside from designing the cover to look like a book, I wanted to echo this literary theme in the packaging itself.  The album package is a digi-pack (instead of the standard jewel case), so it could be opened like a book.  The leather cover look continues to the inside of the case where there is a full 12 page lyrics booklet.  The inner booklet is tied together by the darkly whimsical pen illustrations drawn by my good friend Alex Muller.  I had originally wanted to sew in the booklet  so that the case would be an actual book, but this proved a bit too costly to justify.  Since "Echoes of Edensong" is more of an interim release, we couldn't put the same resources toward packaging.  We wanted something simple but powerful and knew we would need to rely mainly upon the artwork to do this.  A friend of mine showed me Alison Silva's artwork and I immediately knew it would be the perfect look for the release.  Luckily, Alison seemed very excited about the project as well and she designed two beautifully powerful paintings for the front and back panels.  We wanted to continue the book motif from the "Fruit Fallen," given that the two releases are very related, so we borrowed the same book texture and changed the color.

13 What does the band have planned next? 

We have a lot of stuff in the works right now.  Despite having no big festival gigs looming on the horizon, this is by far the busiest the band has ever been.  We're now deep into the writing process for our next full length album: something of a concept album, but I shouldn't say more than that.  I'm hoping we can begin recording by year's end.  We also just completed our first music video for the song "Beneath the Tide," which was made possible by some generous donations by our friends and fans via Kickstarter.  We have a premier screening planned for December 9th in NY.  We plan to make this video available on youtube with some live videos of our various festival performances.  This is also the first time that the band has been gigging and traveling regularly.  We're heading down to Baltimore in a few weeks for a show at the iconic Orion Studios, so we're pretty psyched for that.  Beyond that, we're hard at work with some of the less glamorous aspects of being a rock band - promotion, etc.  Despite how much time I spend doing band related activities, it always seems like there's a ton more to do.  At least things are moving forward!

14 How has the world's move to digital mediums changed how you look at the process of making an album? 

I honestly don't think it has thus far.  Our next project is very much rooted in the age of the album.  We have a few cuts that could be singles, but our approach is certainly on the work as a whole.  One of the major casualties of the digital age is the importance of the album.  In this regard, it's like we've all set the clock back to the early 1960s.  Edensong does it's best to resist this trend and given our direction, I imagine we'll always been an album band.  But then again, who knows what the future holds?

15 How has downloading impacted the band, either negatively or positively? 

I think it's a bit of both.  I have to figure that the internet has been mainly a boon for Edensong and the tons of independent non-mainstream bands.  I'm sure we've lost our fair share of CD sales to illegal downloading, but I also highly doubt that we'd be anywhere right now if it weren't for the internet.

16 Are there any newer bands you look to today for inspiration? 

Say what you will about modern music, I really believe we are living in a creative golden age.  Sure, as a culture, we may be being force fed terrible and/or formulaic crap, but if you take an active approach to your listening (as many music enthusiasts do these days), you can find amazingly innovative and eclectic work out there.  Nothing is really off limits and musicians are mixing genres all the time.  There are no rules and no gatekeepers, and thanks to modern technology, anything you can dream up compositionally is within reach.  Some of my favorite modern bands draw upon elements from early 70s progressive rock (some more than others), but wouldn't necessarily be labelled as such:  Coheed and Cambria, The Mars Volta, Three, Dredg, The Dear Hunter etc.  Of course, I also love a bunch of bands who run in the same progressive rock circles as we do: Discipline, Phideaux, IZZ, Magenta etc.

17 When you're not writing or performing, are there any bands or musicians you're finding particularly enjoyable these days? 

I guess I'm pretty longwinded because I think I answered this one in the previous question as well.  This week, I've been on a Symphony X kick.  I got into these guys when I was in early high school and it's been a few years since I've revisited their work.  I really can't imagine anyone doing a better job within this style.  It's usually metal that's the most immediately rewarding for me to listen to these days…Dream Theater, Coheed, Vanden Plas etc.  It's definitely a comfort because I know these albums so well but it also has the whole adrenaline thing, and since I do most of my casual listening in the car, it does a good job of keeping me awake as well!

18 As we wrap things up, do you have any parting words for our readers? 

Thanks so much for taking the time to read what I have to say and learning a bit about Edensong.  I hope I didn't go on too long!  If you like us in real life, come find us and "like" us on facebook too!  This is definitely the best site for up to date information.  And thanks to you, Bill, for putting together such thoughtful questions and being so supportive of our band.  You have a great site here!

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Even though I have no CDs by this group, I really enjoyed this post / interview! Sounds like a hard-working band, dedicated to the music first and foremost!
One comment: James kept saying "albums" - isn't that a passe term now?
And how he describes their digi-pack 'fruit fallen,' it sounded a lot like how David Gilmore did his 'on an island' CD - digi-pack -album ...