An interview with Stuart Avis from Servants of Science
The limited edition CDs are being hand-numbered and local postal workers should soon be delivering the debut album The Swan Song by Servants of Science, the Brighton-based crossover prog collective through the nation’s letterboxes.
I was invited to listen to a download of the music shortly after its digital release in early December last year and was suitably impressed by the whole project, from the cinematic opener Another Day which reminded me of dreamy 70s French prog masters Pulsar, to the epic Burning in the Cold which closes the album. Musically, the compositions most obviously reference Pink Floyd and Roger Waters’ solo material but there’s also more than a hint of arty 80s synthesizer pop bands, something which should appeal to anyone who likes Steven Wilson’s To the Bone. Lyrically, if you scratch the surface you find a layer of meaning apart from the obvious ‘destruction of the earth’, and perhaps this is also Floyd-related; an examination of mental health issues.
With an intelligent social media campaign to back up an amazing product, they've gained a lot of radio play across Europe and North America over the last month and generated a good deal of interest surrounding the release of the album. In the first ever ProgBlog interview, to coincide with the release of the physical editions I set Stuart Avis, the prime mover of the group, some questions about influences and about survival in the music business. To my gratitude, he’s provided some in-depth and insightful answers; I hope you find them interesting too.
ProgBlog: Who are your favourite bands, who is your biggest musical influence and why?
Stuart Avis: I've always been drawn to bands that are sonically interesting, people that make albums that can still surprise you with something that you hadn't noticed before on the umpteenth listen. Bands like Pink Floyd, The Flaming Lips and Grandaddy are masters of the art, it's all in the details. Many of us know a record like Dark Side of the Moon inside out but, when you give it a listen on a pair of speakers or headphones that you've not used before you can never be 100% certain of what you're going to hear, that's pretty amazing. Growing up in the 80's I became a big fan of the pop music at the time as most pre-teens do, but the band that really stood out for me was Depeche Mode, they were at the forefront of sampling and crafted their own sounds. This was when sampling was extremely limited and not the quick fix lazy exercise it can often be today, you couldn't just lift a chunk of a song back then, you had just a few seconds to work with and use your initiative. They'd spend hours doing field recordings then effectively create new instruments with fragments of those recordings in a sampler. You'd hear sounds on a Depeche Mode record that had never been used before musically. I guess they were my way in to a lot of the music I would get into later, including prog due to them being one of the key pioneers of the 12" extended version, lapping up those 7 or 8 minute epic versions was a good primer for long form music outside of a typical song structure. My first musical love was Sparks, a band that have a lot more prog tendencies than people may realise. They're still my favourite band to this day, no one can pen a skewed pop song like Ron Mael, and their relentless drive to redefine what pop music can consist of always yields fascinating results.
PB: Brighton has a fantastic vibe and there’s some excellent countryside around with settlement going back to Neolithic times. Your debut album The Swan Song is about an astronaut witnessing the end of the world from space and the cover depicts The Joker pub at the bifurcation of Preston Road and Beaconsfield Road (the A23); what prompted that concept and do you draw any inspiration from the surrounding area?
SA: Oh absolutely! We're quite spoilt down here, where I live I can travel 5 minutes in one direction and be on the beach, or 5 minutes in the opposite direction and be in the countryside. Two roads that run parallel to each other can have completely different vibes, there's no end of inspiration. The idea for the cover came to me on the train home after recording the vocals for the album up in Nottingham last year. "The Swan Song" has two story lines running in tandem, the surface one with the astronaut witnessing the end of the world, but the album is also littered with references to a possible mental health condition such as schizophrenia, so, depending on how the listener wishes to interpret these clues this may all just be in someone's head as they're experiencing an episode of sorts. The image of the astronaut holding one of those "The end of the world is nigh" boards in a normal everyday setting seemed to capture both stories in one photo. The location became one of necessity. The story takes place in the summer, as set up with the radio samples and the "summer rain" references in the opening track "Another Day", but there was a delay with the spacesuit so we couldn't do the photoshoot until the end of November. The location was the last high street left in Brighton that didn't have Christmas decorations everywhere, this turned out to be quite fortuitous though as we ended up with a better shot than what I originally had in mind. The traffic lights all being on red was a nice bonus too, a signal to stop, they're very fitting with the themes in the album.
PB: Brighton has some great record stores and a variety of musical instrument suppliers. Do you shop locally for music and musical equipment?
SA: Far more than I should! Record shops are my Achilles heel, although I've tried to curtail my spending a bit over the last year, partly because I have a huge pile of records I still haven't played, and partly because I've been so involved with "The Swan Song". There are constantly gems to be found down here, Brighton's record shops can be a tad pricey compared to say, Nottingham, but once you get to know the owners, a little haggling helps things along. I own a studio called Black Bunker so I'm often having a wander around miscellaneous shops keeping an eye out for equipment bargains too and of course things that can benefit the band as well. It's worryingly easy to pop along the road for a packet of crisps and come back with a guitar amp.
PB: What was the last prog album you bought?
SA: That was FEAR by Marillion, to my eternal shame I arrived late to the party for this one and only got around to hearing it last November, my jaw hit the floor! I'm a massive fan of the Fish-era but never fully gelled with the Steve Hogarth material, when they hit the spot though they're amazing and everything on FEAR is amazing and then some! I lost track of them for one reason or another after Marbles but this has prompted me to fill in the gaps over the last decade or so since then, and I'm finding more treats that are making me kick myself for missing them first time around. Steve Rothery is as close as anyone can get to David Gilmour for feel, tone and sheer beauty of playing but still retains his own individuality without ever cloning, they're a super-talented bunch.
PB: Where is the best place to see a gig in Brighton and where is best to eat/drink beforehand?
SA: I guess my regular haunt for local bands is The Prince Albert, I'm very fond of the place. I've a good relationship with the venue and staff there, have known some of them since I was a kid and even played in bands with a few over the years so it's like a night out with mates even if I go alone. They do excellent food there too so you can kill two birds with one stone. We'll be playing there on April 21st with The Filthy Tongues, a band I've admired for nigh on 30 years in their original incarnation as Goodbye Mr MacKenzie and then Angelfish. The albatross that's forever circling over them is being the band that Shirley Manson was poached from for Garbage, but they're a fantastic band in their own right.
PB: Some of your own ideas have been worked on on-line and releases like Anderson-Stolt’s The Invention of Knowledge show technology has made long-distance collaboration no barrier to producing adventurous music. Would you like to collaborate with any other artist(s) and for what reasons?
SA: The internet is amazing for this; it's opened up a whole new world of possibilities. Many years ago I co-ordinated a couple of Pink Floyd tribute CD sets for a website called Neptune Pink Floyd. Pre-Facebook, Twitter etc internet forums were hugely popular, the NPF one was one of the biggest, if not the biggest, of Floyd ones. Many of the various forum members contributed songs either solo or recorded with their own bands, but one of the aims was to try and get the forum members to collaborate on covers wherever possible regardless of where they were in the world. I played keys on a version of Atom Heart Mother which also included a guitarist in Australia and a bass player in Ireland. The project may also be considered one version of the genesis of Servants of Science. Our vocalist Neil Beards submitted to me a couple of cover versions under the moniker The Amber Herd for the project. After we put out the CDs I organised a live Floyd tribute event in Brighton which lasted 10 hours inviting as many of the CD participants to perform as possible. Neil wanted to take part in the event so he put a band together to bring The Amber Herd to life which is still going strong to this day. On the day of the gig, I found myself in a bit of a jam when it became clear that neither of the people I was collaborating with could sing our opening number, "Welcome To The Machine", so Neil graciously stepped up to the plate, did a fantastic job and from there on a friendship was born and now, 12 years later, Servants of Science. Internet collaborations are such a wonderful opportunity for people; I guess the biggest success commercially of this ilk so far may well be the FFS project between Franz Ferdinand and Sparks. They wrote the whole album by sending files back and forth across continents via e-mail. Sparks are a band I'd love to collaborate with, that would be a childhood fantasy, but I'm happy to collaborate with anyone. I believe everyone has a musical ability, even if they don't believe it themselves, often those are the most rewarding and surprising ones. Obviously any of the members of Floyd would be a dream collaboration too. I pass David Gilmour's house almost every day on the way to the studio, once the physical copies of the album arrive I'll be popping one through his letterbox, nothing ventured as they say.
PB: You’re self-releasing a limited edition CD and possibly a heavyweight vinyl edition of The Swan Song. What do you think of the state of the music business today and what challenges as an indie artist do you feel you have?
SA: It's making a steady return to health. After it fell on its arse with Napster, which no one seemed to know how to deal with, a lot of record labels turned into headless chickens then died and we lost a lot of record stores in the fall-out as sales dwindled, but, things are certainly on the up again. We'll never see a return to the kind of sales that ran from the 60s through to the 90s, the landscape has changed too much for that, but it's in a good place, even cassettes are making a return. The worst aspect now is probably the need for instant gratification, both from the labels and the consumer. It's not exactly new but fewer risks are being taken now and investment in bands and allowing them to grow is a much rarer occurrence today. Fortunately there are still a number of small maverick labels out there taking risks and their number appears to be growing, we're seeing a return to the punk DIY ethos thanks to the internet. Ironically, something that once nearly crippled the music industry is now serving as its saviour. I think the challenges have always been the same, trying to stand out in a crowd and offer something fresh and get that noticed, the main difference now is how you navigate the obstacles, social media is proving a great vehicle for that.
PB: What importance would you ascribe to social media for getting noticed and providing support for your projects?
SA: It's been a massive help for us. The opportunities the various social media platforms provide for artists to be heard is incredible, we're having this conversation now thanks to its virtues but, as these opportunities are, and quite rightly so, available to everyone, artists have become a needle in a different haystack. However, I do believe the pros far outweigh the cons if you're willing to put the time and effort in. We've been getting played a lot in Canada and the U.S. as well as a number of European territories within a month of putting our music out into the world. This is something we could have only dreamt about prior to the social media boom; it's put music in the hands of the artist and given them a chance to take control of their path. It's tough and the competition is fierce, but that's a healthy thing, it'll pay off if you work hard at it.
PB: What is your opinion on streaming?
SA: As a way of discovering new music and being heard by people that might not normally get to hear you it's invaluable. Streaming technology has opened a lot of doors with radio and video and generated new audiences, it's certainly expanded our reach immeasurably, the downside is it has also majorly contributed to the growing disposable nature of music for many too. It has had a massive effect on sales but in turn it has also generated sales for us which we wouldn't have received without streaming. I'm a traditionalist and prefer the physical format, which fortunately is experiencing something of a renaissance at the moment, and long may it last, but streaming is here to stay so I guess we have to adapt to it and focus on its benefits.
PB: What advice would you give for people thinking of getting into the business?
SA: Keep on keeping on, expect a lot of knock backs but remain positive and believe that each "no" is one step closer to the next "yes". Utilise the internet, it's full of opportunity, look up bands in a similar vein to yourselves, find radio stations, press and promoters that are following them and get in contact and build a database of the contacts too.
PB: Can you give us an idea of what Servants of Science has planned for the future?
SA: We'll be performing live and promoting "The Swan Song" for the foreseeable future. We're developing the live show at the moment which will feature the album in full and it's coming along spectacularly. We've got a great 6 piece band together that features many of the musicians that appear on the album, but rather than playing various instruments each, like we did on the record, we have dedicated roles for the live shows. I'll be sticking to just keyboards, Neil Beards is playing acoustic guitar and providing lead vocals, Andy Bay is playing bass, Helena Deluca is reprising her vocal role and adding some extra harmonies as well as playing rhythm guitar, Adam McKee is in his spiritual home behind the drum kit and Ian Brocken, who recently joined us, will be handling all the lead guitar parts and, if I may say so myself, it's all sounding fantastic! We're currently shooting footage for our backdrop film projections which we're also going to be putting out as a film of the album. On top of that we'll also be incorporating lighting into the shows too, and anything else we can get our hands on. The astronaut may even be joining us on our journey. After that we'll be embracing the challenge of the difficult second album…