Interview conducted 13th March 2010
About The Interview
Mastermind were one of the original pioneers of the prog rock renaissance than happened in the 1990’s. From New York the band were formed by guitarist/vocalist Bill Berends and his brother drummer Rich Berends. Ten years have passed since the bands last album but February 2010 saw the release of their new opus ‘Insomnia’ released on Lion Music. We caught up with Bill to discuss the new album, new vocalist Tracy McShane, what makes the band tick and a whole lot more.
Bill Berends, thanks for talking to Virtuosity One.
It’s my pleasure, thanks for your interest in the band and our music.
Please give us an insight into your musical background and how Mastermind got formed and has evolved since those early days.
My background in music goes back to the early days of the 60’s. My first real musical awareness was The Beatles of course, like so many others at that time, then all the things that sprung up around that scene like the Stones, the Animals, etc. I started playing a little guitar, pretending I was George Harrison… he seemed like the most thoughtful Beatle and the lead guitar really appealed to me, but I wasn’t too serious about it at the time being so young. Then the later 60’s came along and I was hooked. Bands like Cream, Hendrix, Spirit, Ten Years After, this stuff blew my mind, the musicianship, the experimentation.. not to mention being a soundtrack to the social revolutions taking place. It really was all new back then and a very exciting time to be alive. I was interested in music other than rock too… I loved church music. I grew up going to a big church that had a huge pipe organ and it always blew my mind. The church service bored me to tears, but the music made a deep impression. Combined with that we have another brother who is a trained classical pianist, so hearing him practice Bach, Chopin, and other classical music around the house all day also had a strong influence. But The Beatles brought rock ‘n’ roll into my world.
The next thing that really got me was The Cream… at the time this was the heaviest thing around and it knocked my socks off with extended guitar solos and jamming which I loved! Gibson guitars through Marshall stacks…
they were the pioneers and that is still THE rock guitar sound as far as I am concerned. From Cream I got deeply into the blues because I really wanted to learn where this music came from, so my love of the blues and extended jams came from there. The next major influence was Emerson, Lake & Palmer because they took the grandeur of the church organ thing I loved so much and ROCKED it!! Not to mention introducing this thing called a Moog synthesizer. That stuff totally blew my mind. There was, and still is, nothing else like ELP in their prime. My next major influence was The Mahavishnu Orchestra… they took what Cream was doing, added jazz, and took it to new levels of instrumental technique which was incredible. Of these three bands I mention, no one has come close to duplicating the originality or power of what they did. My desire with Mastermind initially, and the reason we started doing it, was to try and recreate some of this stuff as best we could at a time when no one else was doing it.
Then there are the years that followed where lots of things influenced me.
So many things I can’t go into them all. People are always asking me what new stuff I like and the answer is “not much”. This isn’t because I am stuck in the past, I am always searching for new & interesting music, but not much comes close to the guys who thought the stuff up in the first place. And, to a large degree, entertainment has surpassed artistic intent and people lost touch with real music. This is sort of why Mastermind is always trying different things. We didn’t start doing this to be “product”, we started doing it as a musical adventure. When we began recording in the mid-80’s there was no one around doing that stuff anymore. Thankfully some younger people have begun to rediscover the origins and there are some slightly more interesting things around now to listen to, but… far too much of it is over-stylized and stuck in a niche while very few artists are actually trying to create something new. One band in the last decade that I thought was interesting was “A Perfect Circle” and listening to them definitely had some influence on the Insomnia recordings.
‘Insomnia’ sees the first full length Mastermind release in a decade. I presume you haven’t been sleeping during this time so just what the hell have the band been up to since 2000’s ‘Angels of the Apocalypse’?
No, I lost a lot of sleep after 2001, it was a difficult time to be an American. Actually, we were very active as a live band during that time, but nobody seemed to care much except the few people who came out to the shows. We got zero support from Inside Out on any level – they didn’t understand the band at all – so we just went at it on our own. Several bass players came and went which was frustrating and impeded our progress, but we kept at it. We were recording as well and released an EP on our own in 2005 to sell at shows, but without a label behind it we didn’t get much attention. Then there were changes in personal lives… my brother moved some distance away from me which made constant collaboration difficult, still does. After the last bass player left the band I had had enough and we just started playing bluesy rock stuff in bars locally. It kept us playing, we had fun and made a few dollars. Despite not being in the public eye as much, we were still making music all along.
Tracy McShane makes her vocal debut on a full length album with ‘Insomnia’, it must be nice to finally be able to unveil her on a wider scale to the world market?
Absolutely. The thing is, I had faith in this record despite the fact we that had difficulty finding a home for it. So in that regard, I felt backed up and unable to move forward until we got it released properly. We did have lots of offers for the album, but nothing I considered any better than releasing it ourselves which I knew I didn’t want to do, so I held out until the right situation came along. I really didn’t expect it to take so long! But I am pleased with Lion Music, they gave us a fair deal and seem to be working at promoting the album. So to answer the question, yes it is nice to finally see the album released properly.
Mastermind began using female vocals on ‘Angels of the Apocalypse’, what led to this quite original fronting for a progressive band?
I thought it was a pretty original idea at the time, but since then it seems dozens of other acts have gone the same route. I suppose the real essence of it was twofold… the first being, after quite a bit of touring in the 90’s I just got tired of being the only vocalist. It wore me out. I never set out in life to be a singer and took some flack for it… tho’ some people still prefer my vocal to the female thing. Personally, I just wanted to concentrate on playing guitar which is my true love, musically speaking. So we made an instrumental album – Excelsior! – our first with Jens, and because we had another player to work with, we leaned more towards an interactive fusion sound which I love. But then we got a lot of flack from the labels for doing that.. “you can’t sell an instrumental album” and so on, so I thought if we need a vocalist I want a good one and Lisa (Bouchelle) was the best one I knew personally. The idea of a female voice appealed to me because it was unique and, I love female vocal in a classical setting. Lisa was into it so we gave it shot.. only to hear back from the labels that “female vocals don’t sell” which I don’t agree with, but we were being marketed as a metal band so I suppose there is some truth to that since metal is so macho. Anyway, after a while it became clear Lisa was more interested in pursuing her solo career so we needed another female voice to be able to carry on playing the “Angels” material. When I met Tracy she seemed like the perfect solution, so here we are.
Mastermind are well known for taking a different slant on each album, where does ‘Insomnia’ fall into the bands progression/catalogue to you?
Actually, our first four albums were all very much in a similar vein, but since we were with Cyclops, a lesser known label, most people aren’t aware of them. For much of the world “Excelsior!” was our first album when in truth it was our 5th album and 11 years into being a band. What happened is after 10 or so years of doing the same basic thing I just really wanted to try some other stuff… more fusion, more guitar oriented, more straightforward rock. So you might say what we are well known for is just not being that well known. How does Insomnia fit into the progression? I think it is a step towards just getting back to the essence of getting the point across without too much embellishment and acknowledging modern elements such as tuned down guitars and seeing how they can fit in to our musical visions.
Over what time frame where the songs written and have they changed somewhat since their original conception?
All of the Insomnia material was written shortly after Tracy joined the band in 2001 with the exception of Night Flier which was recorded in a separate session with Jens. Once I had a fair idea of what we were shooting for, the material didn’t change that much throughout the recording process. The album was basically finished in 2004, it just took 6 years to get it released. Ideally this album should’ve been released in 2004 but it didn’t work out that way. There was another behind-the-scenes element too… we had an A&R guy at a major label very interested in the band and we went back and forth with them and a big management company for almost a year, so that delayed things as well. I suppose that may have had some bearing on the shape of a few songs. I edited some things down to shorter times and cut back some of the solos at their suggestion, but ultimately that deal fell apart and we were still nowhere, but I liked the modern edge the changes brought about and kept them. Inside Out suggested calling it something other than Mastermind, which I considered, but they weren’t into the female vocal thing anyway so I thought, this is the same people as Mastermind, calling it something different would be silly. It would be like The Beatles changing their name because Sgt. Pepper didn’t sound like Love Me Do… so we soldiered on as Mastermind. In retrospect they may have been correct, who knows. I am better at making music than marketing which is why I prefer being involved with a decent label.
‘Insomnia’ is home to 10 songs, all of which are quite unique in character yet form a cohesive bond within their album framework. How much agonising was done over things like what tracks to include, the running order etc and can you ever be truly happy with these things?
Thanks! I think it is pretty cohesive as a whole and in fact, I think it works best listening as a whole. That was my intention, to create an hour or so of music that was a pleasing listen, period. We didn’t need to show we could play blistering solos or write complex compositions, been there, done that. We have six other albums of that kind of thing, so I wanted to do something a little different. I knew which songs would open and close the album, sorting out the running order felt natural to me after a few shuffles of the cards, so it was decided pretty early on, most of it. I did one tweak after we signed the deal with Lion Music since it had been some time since I was living with this recording. Ultimately I think that made it a stronger album and better listen, but once it goes out to press there’s no sense worrying about it anymore, it’s time to start thinking about the next thing.
How do you/Mastermind go about writing a song and when do you know a song is right?
I am the only writer in the band so I just write and write and when I feel I have a selection of tunes that feels cohesive, I present them to the others and get their feedback. If anyone hates anything in particular I may revisit it, defend it, or just throw it out. In the case of Insomnia there was one track I threw out myself just because I thought it was a little too bouncy in the overall scheme of things. How do I know it’s right? I never know… I just do what I like and hope for the best.
Any favourite tracks/performances on the album and if so why?
“Last Cigarette” is my personal favorite. I like the slow, ponderous groove and I like how it makes me feel. I think the vocal harmonies work nicely and I really like the solo section with the counter-voicing Jens does with the guitar. I also like how it ends the album in an ambient space. The rain, the barking dogs, that was recorded in my own backyard so it is very personal for me and evokes that time period, yet puts it to rest at the same time. It’s also really sombre in one way, yet I think it ends leaving you with a feeling of hope and not hopelessness. I like that sort of thing. If something is just dead sombre it can be too depressing, so even my darkest material tends to leave you feeling hopeful I’d like to think.
Where were the tracks recorded/mixed/produced as there is a wonderfully organic sound to this album?
Thank you! The whole album, just like all Mastermind albums, was recorded and mixed in my home studio. The main difference between Insomnia and the others is, this is the first Mastermind album that was recorded all with computers and not tape. All the other albums were recorded on analog tape. Night Flier was maybe the last thing we ever did on tape, so it took a little work to get that to fit in, but I think it works. That slowed the recording process down a little too, the learning curve of digital recording and how to make it sound not-digital. I’m very pleased to hear you enjoyed the production!
You are listed as producer along with your brother what do you see this role as being and how do you approach it?
Since I am the composer as well, my role as producer is to try and get everything to sound like what I am hearing in my head, to bring the compositions to reality. My brother’s role is more or less as a sounding board if I get too carried away or miss the mark with something. He won’t hesitate to tell me if he thinks something sucks!
I am guessing there is a natural non verbal communication when you and Rich play? Is it noticeable when you play with other drummers/musicians?
With Rich and myself that is definitely the case. We grew up together listening to the same music and developing the same sensibilities, we know when something is going to happen or where things are going instinctively, although we may not always agree on everything. With other musicians it just depends on the person. Working with Jens is very easy, I just tell him what I am envisioning and he usually comes up with something right off that is really close what I am hearing. Once in a while he may miss the mark, but we discuss it a bit then it’s right back on track. If he has an idea or suggestion I am happy to listen to them since I respect his opinion. I have played with a lot of musicians however, that I don’t get that vibe with at all… bass players *cough cough* in particular. A lot of players are just in their own little world and don’t LISTEN to what the other players are doing. In fact I would say that is true with a majority of so called musicians I have known. They just do the thing that they do as if they were in a vacuum or something, it’s very frustrating. Most rock musicians, especially younger ones, tend to learn and create music by brute force memorization, so real time interaction and improvisation is something they don’t get at all. It’s a shame really, that this has become a lost art. Add to that click tracks controlling light shows and non-existent keyboard players and what you end up with is stiff, mechanical, and boring. No organic feel at all.
Jens Johansson lends his golden fingers to the Mastermind sound once again, how did you initially hook up with Jens?
I met Jens almost 25 years ago in a music store in New Jersey. I wrote a little story about it on our website linked to the Excelsior! page. I had no idea who Yngwie was at the time, or Jens, I just heard him play in the store and thought ‘that was incredible, I gotta know this guy!’ I introduced myself, we got to be friends, and after I heard his Heavy Machinery and Fission albums I knew I wanted to work with him. In my mind’s ear I hear Jens as a modernized sort of Jan Hammer, the original keyboard foil to the guitarist.. to which Jens will say “fuck Jan Hammer!” of course lol… but we both have musical roots that go way back and I think we have certain shared sensibilities, so it works out well I think.
Do you give him guidance on what you are looking for or does he have free reign?
Both. I’ll suggest to him the feeling I hope to evoke and let him go at it. If it isn’t what I’m hearing I’ll make some suggestions which he has no problem with. There were a few instances where I really wanted to pull him out of his comfort zone and challenge him to do something totally different, like play slow, use a different sound other than the famous Korg sound, stuff like that. He is very willing to try different stuff and when he sees what I’m getting at, usually he’ll jump right in and comes up with something wonderful. On a few occasions he’ll do something I am totally not expecting and we’ll keep it, so it’s give and take.
Those keyboard sounds he gets are so unique, and his playing with his personalised phrasing and tones are wonderful, you must be pleased to have him onboard?
Absolutely. Jens is a brilliant player with a unique outlook on almost everything, and he’s pretty funny too! I wish we were in a situation where he could be available to us all the time because I have other ideas in mind for him, but Stratovarius keeps him pretty busy these days. I guess we’ll see what happens down the road, but we have discussed doing more music together in the future.
What else is in store for 2010?
We hope to be able to get out and do some live shows to support the album. If you aren’t appearing, you’re disappearing, as the old blues guys say. I have recorded a “Bill Berends” solo album of instrumental guitar music which I finished up just recently. That’s really where my head was going musically when we got an offer from Lion Music which sort of snapped me back into Mastermind mode. Getting back in touch with just the guitar and amp, no frills or effects. No firm release plans for that yet, but it is coming. And, Rich and I have recorded some basic tracks of new music that is potentially the basis for another Mastermind album. To a large degree what we do next depends on how well this album sells and what kind of interest it may generate. I have lots of unheard, unreleased music written, hours of it in fact, it just depends on how I can get it out there.
Any final messages for our readers?
Buy our stuff! Seriously, if you have read this far I thank you for your interest in Mastermind and our music. Thanks to everyone who has supported us over the years and to the people just discovering Mastermind as well. I hope you will take some time to get familiar with our new album because I know for some people it may take a little while to sink in. Mastermind may not be love at first sight for everyone, as one fan put it, but once you acquire a taste for it I think you will like it…. kind of like beer. And we all like beer, don’t we?!
Bill, many thanks for your time.
My pleasure, thank you!