Okay, here’s the deal, folks. We’ve contacted Phideaux Xavier and he has agreed to take part in our first artist Question and Answer session!! For those of you unfamiliar with Phideaux, he is without a doubt, one of the most exciting artists on the current progressive rock scene and has released a couple of staples in the listening habits here at The Bearded Blog, particularly 2007’s “Doomsday Afternoon” (part two of a trilogy), 2009’s “Number 7”, and 2011’s “Snowtorch”. Recently, he has been hard at work on 5 new releases, including a live album, a pair of albums from a side project called Mogon, a collection of outtakes entitled “7 1/2” and of course, part three of the trilogy consisting of 2006’s “The Great Leap” and “Doomsday Afternoon”, entitled “Infernal”, which as I understand, is coming along quite nicely…
His most recent release, a Sampler consisting of highlights from a few of his upcoming projects, is proving to be another excellent slice of Phideaux’s creativity, with “Tempest of Mutiny” – a sort of progressive rock sea shanty – being a standout track, as well as a live take on 2005’s “Chupacabras”, and “Snuff” – a track from the upcoming Mogon project, a sort of moody, mellotron washed piece with some fantastic trumpet work.
1. Tell me a bit about your background. Where are you from? Where did you go to school? Where did you receive music lessons? Was there a particular person in your life who inspired you to be a musician?
I grew up in US East coast during a time of great musical creativity. I had older sister who listened to all the current music and I as a small child benefited from hearing The Beatles, Airplane, Zappa, Alice Cooper and Tull at a very impressionable age. It probably changed my way of thinking and gave me a direction in my life. I went to school in a small town of New York called Hastings-on-Hudson, where 7 of my band mates also lived as young people. I took group guitar lessons when I was 10 at the local youth center. The teacher thought I had promise and I took private lessons from her. She introduced me to Renaissance, Moody Blues and Genesis (and also Fireballet, which included a guy named Richie that she and her sister knew). Ilene Lieberman was an influence for me musically, as well as my sister, Jeri Riggs. Music inspired me to become a musician. I didn’t know anyone who played music aside from John, Paul, George and Ringo.
2. When will “Infernal” be released? Will you be performing any of that material live?
I am going to be performing some of the material live in Chicago on October 13. However, that will be a “duo” show with myself and Valerie Gracious, so it will be a stripped down experience. We hope to play three numbers “We Only Have Eyes For You”, “C99” and “From Hydrogen To Love”. I really hope “Infernal” will come out on the fast track. Everything about it has been run like a military campaign. It might be the first album that doesn’t come sputtering out years after its recordings originated. The bloody Mogon albums were recorded in 2009 and 2010!!!
3. What is your favorite album you have done, and why?
There are a few and it’s hard to choose. I would say there are three key moments: “Ghost Story” as a favourite album. It’s perfect and does exactly what I want it to do, although in a charming, naive and fragile way. Those songs and arrangements under the guidance of a strong production ethic might have been huge. As it is, that’s when I was operating under a smaller budget with attempting to solve problems myself rather than involve professionals. Ghost Story has songs that emerged not from me, but seemed to come through me like a sculpture is liberated from the stone. I am grateful for that experience.
The second moment is the song “Chupacabras” which was the first thing that flew out of my fingertips when I rented a piano. I only barely played, but the song came very quickly and then was recorded as a demo with Gabe. That was really the beginning of my relationship with Gabe Moffat who has been sooo instrumental in making my music come to life. Enter the professional. And Chupacabras is another lost opportunity because I was too afraid to record the damned song and just “added” onto the demo. I think that song is a triumph of intent over content. The amount of “fixing” is tragic. I now prefer newer versions we have recorded, but that was also a fragile beauty with great ambition, the first for me.
Third, is the Doomsday Afternoon album which for some reason has resonated with people. There are some unbelievable moments (for me) on that album where the guest stars (Joel Weinstein on guitar, Matthew Parmenter on violin) forced the songs into new directions which ultimately surprised me and took the album to places I couldn’t have anticipated. That is a thrill. I also think the album came together inexplicably and has touched something in the zeitgeist that people respond to. I can only listen to bits of it now because it has so many flaws that I hear. I am looking forward to a very slight remix/remaster of that one. We will be doing a reissue of Doomsday and The Great Leap with a significantly different mix to The Great Leap.
4. Who were your biggest inspirations to become a musician?
Beatles, Alice Cooper, Ian Anderson.
5. Why are the Mogon albums being released under a different name? What sets them apart from normal Phideaux material?
Mark, Mat, Rich and I were recording some music for a Musea compilation album about Dante’s Purgatorio. The session produced three recordings: Strange Cloud, Star Of Light (which was the “seed” for Snowtorch) and The Chairs. The Chairs was recorded after Mark had to leave to catch his flight. We had spent two days on Strange Cloud and Star Of Light which were very complicated pieces. One of which I played piano and one on which I played acoustic guitar. At the end of the session on day two Mark left to catch his plane but we still had a couple of hours booked at the studio. So, I sent Mat and Rich and Gabe away and told them to come back in 20 min. During that time I experimented with Mark’s keyboard rig (an organ, a moog and some other sound) and devised the simple changes that became The Chairs. I invited the guys back and told them very briefly that it was an atmospheric piece and that I would speak the changes into the microphone. I told Mat the changes briefly and then instructed Gabe to record us (using the same settings as Star Of Light). We did two take where I improvised the structure and narrated the chord movements to Mat. The second take was chosen and then I sang it. The title came from a play by Eugene Ionesco, a surrealist playwrite. Hearing back the track it didn’t sound like “Phideaux” music and I thought, this isn’t Phideaux, it’s…. Mogon. The word popped into my head and I liked the way it both looked and sounded. A tiny bit tough and bit harsh and mysterious and epic. Mogon music is simpler and more direct than where Phideaux has been lately. Mogon is minimal/spartan but still tough. It is more directly related to Ghost Story and The Great Leap vs. Chupacabras/Doomsday Afternoon/Number Seven.
6. Are vintage keyboards like the Mellotron used or softsynths?
No mellotrons were harmed in making Phideaux. We have used samples as well as that deliriously absurd creation, The Memotron (a replica mellotron style sampler that uses CDs and offers no advantages from the original mellotron – no infinite loops, no more than three sounds!). We have used Arp String Ensembles, Hammond C3 with Leslie cabinet and Yamaha Electric pianos. We’ve used mini moogs and moog voyagers as well as various vintage keyboards. But we have also used Nord Electro 2 and other newer versions of these items. It’s the “sound” we want and we don’t care how we get it. But we do care that it sounds good and I’m pleased that very little sounds terrible to me. However, I have sometimes been criticized for cheezy keyboard sounds, which I don’t agree with (not that we’re opposed to bad sounds now and again).
7. What is your method to compose music?
I listen and try to play what pops into my head. Then, I work on something until it goes somewhere and if it’s a good idea and I need to write something, then I come back to it. Sometimes, I just noodle around with an idea and then bank it on tape for future use. I don’t need to write anything now for quite a while. But, there are two pieces that I’ve had banked for three years that I’ve been wanting to put together. They would be appropriate for my “solo acoustic” album. The working titles are “folk song” and “Peacekeeper”. So, I will take the ideas and string them together and find anything that needs better arranging and linking and then puzzle though that for a while. Then, once I’ve got the structure and melodies down, then I’ll try to write the final lyrics. Sometimes, as was the case with Infernal, we will go to the studio with most of a song written and places left blank for the band to contribute their ideas.
8. Have you ever been tempted to write/record a “full-on” suite for symphony orchestra? I know you’ve used actual orchestra on recent albums, but I’m talking non-rock here.
Well, I did once write something on synthesizer that felt somewhat orchestral to me and it is a dream to have it realized with an orchestra. I have the synth recording. It’s pretty simple and would be a short piece. However, having gone through Snowtorch and some of the stuff that we’ve orchestrated, I would love to do something that is fully instrumental – probably more along the Oldfield model than symphony Orchestra, but it would use those instruments. Possibly in a bit of a chamber rock style situation.
9. Have you ever had a song that you wrote that you shortened?
Yes, on Infernal I managed to cut 2 minutes out of a song called “Walk On Water” and it was still too long! 98% of the time the opposite is true and songs grow. However, these days I am trying to do less is more.
10. What would you say are the top 10 most influential albums on
1 Beatles – Magical Mystery Tour
2 Jefferson Airplane “Volunteers”
3 Jethro Tull “Thick As A Brick”
4 Jethro Tull “Benefit”
5 Siouxsie & The Banshees – Juju
6 Joy Division – Closer
7 Velvet Underground and Nico
8 Alice Cooper – Killer
9 Banco – Darwin
10 Genesis – Trespass
11. I’m unfamiliar with your work. If you were doing a cheesy infomercial selling your music, how would you sell it to me? How
would you get me to buy it?
I would use Suzanne Somers in a leotard operating her thighmaster while reading the lyrics. I would probably just make it an absurdist jaunt with constant appearances of images from the work, but then cut to hosts standing at the Kitchen counter talking about knives or some such thing. The more I think about, the more I’d love to do a ridiculous infomercial about my music. Thanks for a great idea.
12. How did you pick the musicians you work with?
I grew up with 7 of them, so they have always been friends and we have a good way of working together. They are generous with their time and they don’t judge my poor musicianship. The final three (not cylons) are folks I met. John the keyboard player, Rich the drummer and Mat the bassist come from the wide open world and I picked them because they are all very empathic players and really play to the needs of the song at all times, never trying to be flashy or cheesy or show off. That’s for live shows, not recordings!
13. I’m sure there are more people wondering this, but when will “Doomsday Afternoon” be released on vinyl, and will you release any more of your albums on the vinyl format?
I’m trying to do exactly that, but it’s expensive and I sell so few of them. Please, anybody who wants to help me move some vinyl, give me a shout. I have not done enough research to get my works out there for the vinyl audience. I need a few more titles and the future titles will all be released on vinyl. A box of Doom/The Great Leap will also come out including a significantly different mix of The Great Leap (with the previous mix preserved as a digital download)
14. Who are some other artists that you would love to collaborate
with and why?
There are some folks I have met that I like enormously and would enjoy collaborating with, but I never really strategize super groups of any of that, but I would be honoured to play with many of the musicians I’ve met at festivals and what not. I’m looking for some new avenues, so anyone out there who has an idea, give me a shout and especially if you want to do something doomy, slow and minimal (John cale on quaaludes)
15. What do you do (day job wise)?
I work in television production in Los Angeles, California. Some of the shows I’ve been involved with are Sunset Beach, Passions, General Hospital, The Young and The Restless, Spyder Games and Guiding Light. They are all daytime soap operas, a genre I quite love!
16. If you could play with anyone in concert, who would it be with, and why?
Another supergroup question, or is it about warming up for someone? I’d like to warm up for someone with a similar audience that might enjoy my music. In terms of playing in concert, I just love playing with the folks I already play with. I’m too nervous to just “play” with people. I need to do a lot of rehearsal and am more of a conductor than a player.
17. From Helaine Carson Burch on Facebook:
Is Phideaux going to come to ProgDay and party with us like at
NEARfest? (tee hee) [;-)]
I wish I could get the time off from work, but also, don’t forget I’m a bit of a vampire and can not tolerate the sun for very long.
18. My favorite Phideaux record (so far) is “Number 7” which tells the tale of a Dormouse’s epic battles with a crayfish. Where did this unique fairytale-like idea for a concept album come from? Is there any significance to the title “Number 7” beyond being your 7th offering?
When I decided NOT to record the 3rd part of the dystopian trilogy, I knew I needed a title for my album that could NOT be misinterpreted as containing “poetry” or “writing” in the title. So, I considered that my favourite number is and has always been 7 and decided to call the album “Number Seven”. I thought it had good gravity seeing the words spelled out like that. I really like both the numeral and the word. The word is a bit like Mogon as well. But, I just didn’t want anyone confusing it with the
third installment. And once the main song Waiting For The Axe appeared the nature of the album took shape. Some time during the recording Gabe handed me an article from New Scientist magazine and dared me to incorporate the following sentence into a song: “The daunting claws of the crayfish pose little challenge to the shrew”. There was something about that which reminded me of the lyrics for “In The Court Of The Crimson King” and I started to think about crayfish / shrew – two creatures who do battle each other frequently. And I saw the metaphor of Earth and Sea – the ancient struggle between Father and Mother and I saw that many of the songs were about growing up, leaving behind the “old” and creating the “new”. That shift from sea to land, evolutionarily,
informs all this. And so the artwork became all about crayfish/shrew. At the end of the recording process I came upon the Dormouse songs and from there begat some of the linking bits. It’s one part “The Who Sells Out” and one part “Wake Of Poseidon” and one part “We’re Only In It For The Money” (with Nuclear Cheese). The whole story in the booklet was a bit of a joke, how much can I string together related, but independent songs and pretend they are a fanciful concept? I wrote the “story” somewhat in a playful style not unlike the writing inside “The Lamb” and
then decided that I liked the way in which I cryptically described what was happening in the songs and related it to this dormouse character and its “enlightenment”. The album is really quite personal on many levels and so the dormouse was me! The fool on the hill indeed!
19. Number 7 borrows its format from King Crimson’s 1970 record “In the Wake of Poseidon” … is this record a favorite of your’s? Do any of your other albums reference, in format, classic progressive rock albums?
Wake was the first Crimson album I ever heard or owned when my sister gave it to me as a child. I always thought it was cool that there were three different versions of Peace. And when I realized I had three dormouse ditties that were going to be threading through, the spoof of Wake immediately occurred to me. Especially as one was a very short theme and one was an ending bit (which kicked off the true final song from the album. There was supposed to be a final track called “Have No Fear” which was a reprise of “Prequiem” and contained lyrical reference to “Waiting For The Axe”. However, this is now the final track on “7½”)
20. I’ve noticed that many of your records reference each other.
Is there a continuity to your work?
I love continuity, and it’s almost a silly game for me. I loved all those psychedelic clues embedded (supposedly) in the Liverpool Four’s albums, so I cribbed that idea. It’s fun and I love certain themes and figure, why not revisit or try a variation on this or that thing. I think I went overboard on “Infernal” with quotes from previous album…
21. Question: what do you see as the future of progressive rock music?
I don’t know the answer to that question. I love progressive rock music, but I do sometimes hear some very bad music which is part of the progressive rock genre. That grieves me, but who am I to judge. there are many people who believe that I perpetrate that same crime, so what do I know. However, I will say that I don’t like the abbreviated form of the genre name. Progressive music seemed more a state of mind and an ethic than to be reduced to the word “prog”. I don’t connect to that word and I find it usually applies to the very bands that I don’t comprehend. I’ve made
music that I wanted to make and never really thought too much about how it would go over. Sometimes it could influence the selection of tracks that are kept for an album, but rarely would I write for popularity. To that end, I think there are many people who are making eclectic, artistic music that comes from their hearts. Genuinely unique music from the heart is probably the most “progressive” type of music and while it’s not really the
“style” it’s the ethic and that will always exist. As I slip into my more stripped down, minimal world of Mogon I ponder what it means to be an eclectic musician and I realize I don’t know what I am or how to fit in, but I just do what sounds good to my ears and luckily I have some collaborators who bring a lot of surprise to the table.
Many thanks to Phideaux for being our guinea pig (or is that dormouse?) and taking his time and answering our first artist Question and Answer so thoroughly and with such care!!