Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Servants of Science "The Swan Song"

As always, welcome back and thanks for taking the journey with me fellow progheads!  The Closet Concert Arena digs a bit deeper this week as we take the search for all things prog to the UK and check in with Servants of Science who recently released their debut album, The Swan Song.  As a bonus I was able to score an interview with founding member Stuart Avis which will hopefully give us a more vivid peak behind the curtain...

Closet Concert Arena: What were you doing before Servants of Science and how did the band originate?

Stuart Avis: In some ways I've spent the last 20 years building up to Servants of Science.  I've known Andy Bay our bass player and drummer Adam McKee since 1998; we used to play in an "indie" rock band.  Last year I invited Andy to my studio to put some guitar down on these keyboard parts I had for a song.  This ended up evolving into the closing number on the album, "Burning in the Cold."  I have done a number of collaborations with our vocalist and acoustic guitar player Neil Beards over the course of the past twelve years and Helena DeLuca on rhythm guitar and vocals has collaborated with me the past few years as well.  Ian Brocken, our lead guitarist, is a recent addition to the band--and he is smashing all the guitar parts.  I consider everyone who is part of the band a close friend; I wanted us to have a great vibe and gel right from the start.  As luck would have it, I have very super-talented close friends.

I own a studio in Brighton called "Black Bunker."  This is where Servants of Science started, originally as a recording project between myself and Andy.  From there it grew as we invited more people into the Bunker to build on what we were writing and recording.

CCA: Where did the name Servants of Science come from?

SA: "Servants of Science" the song actually came first.  I had music but no lyrics; one day while driving to the studio the line "Servants of science and sculptors of dreams" popped into my head and I pulled over to write it down.  Throughout the rest of the day I came up with more lyrics and when I got home that evening started to formulate the song.  Whilst putting the song together it occurred to me that "Servants of Science" would also work well as a band name.  I took the idea to the others and they loved it.  It is the fastest band name I've ever come up with and it felt right straight away; suits what the band does lyrically.

CCA: "The Swan Song" is a concept album and the band's debut, yet the term usually implies a farewell.  Can you shed some light on what we can expect?

SA: I really liked the irony of that title for the debut album, it's from a lyric in the song "Servants of Science" and fits the concept really well.  The album tells of an astronaut observing the end of the world while floating in orbit...mixed with hints of a possible mental health disorder like schizophrenia.  So from an alternative angle the lyrics are also about the main character succumbing to depression and taking his own life.  Depending on your interpretation of the music, it is the swan song of Earth or the main character--or both.  Much of it is quite cryptic but the clues are there.

CCA: There is an ambient, almost astral feel to a lot of the music.  Did that lead the direction of the writing or was this an area you set out to discover?

SA: It's certainly a style of music I've been a big fan of and wanted to explore for a long time.  Aside from Sparks, I grew up listening to the likes of Pink Floyd and Mike Oldfield, music that has space to breathe but also takes you on a journey.  Science fiction and ambient, ethereal music have long been good bedfellows; they compliment each other very well.  I've done a fair bit of "poppy" stuff in previous bands, but I have never wanted to make music that was straightforward.  At the very least I always tried to introduce a weird sound into a song, even if for only a few seconds.  With The Swan Song we were able to experiment with textures and sounds right off because no one had any formulated songs.  We had a blank Logic project as the canvas for each track; we worked from the ground up trying different things.  A lot of it fell by the wayside, usually things that sounded to "poppy."  What stuck was the stuff we found to be sonically interesting and we introduced song elements into those experiments.  It wasn't always strange sounds though; sometimes it was unusual chord shapes that to this day we don't know what they are called!

Perfect time to check out a cut from the album; let's start with "Peripheral."  As the song opens you get a sense of dawn; the world is beginning to awaken from its slumber...the drum keeping time to a steady pulse that gives rise to a ritual more than a celebration.  Top notes of Eno during his "Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy" days fills the headphones, and there is a definite early Pink Floyd aroma in the air...Servants of Science wanders--but not aimlessly.

CCA: Who does the songwriting and how does that process work within the band?  

SA: I guess I did the core writing of The Swan Song and most of the recording myself, but everyone made invaluable contributions.  Andy Bay wrote the first lyrics.  He came up with the "Come along to the sun" line which appears at the end "Burning in the Cold."  This was a huge relief as I had no lyrical ideas whatsoever.  The only snag I had was looking for something dark while Andy came up with what felt like a very positive uplifting line. All I could think of was the "Let the sunshine in" chorus from the end of Hair, so I challenged myself to twist that into a dark lyric, just as the "Flesh Failures" section of the Hair track covers dark subject matter.

On the way home that evening the film "The Day the Earth Caught Fire" popped into my head; a classic 60's sci-fi about the cold war.  Suddenly I had a eureka moment!  I got home, dug out the film, watched it twice while writing notes, and then put the lyrics together.  I always wanted to write a song based on Ray Bradbury's "Kaleidoscope," where a space shuttle crew survives their ship's destruction in a meteor shower.  The story is essentially the conversation between the astronauts while they still have radio contact.  Whittling it down to one character, I wrote our song "Kaleidoscope" around that.  From there lyrics flowed easily; we knew where we were headed.

Some songs started as keyboard ideas; "Tedium Infinitum" and "Another Day."  Others originated with guitar experiments..."Peripheral" was written around one chord that I liked the sound of and added synth chords to.

Our next album will be much more of a collaborative process.  Working on The Swan Song we didn't know if we would even be a band; it was just a group of friends chipping in with the recording.  Now we are a great 6-piece ready to take the album to the world and work on the dreaded second album...

CCA: Who or what are the biggest influences on your music?

SA: It would be churlish to deny the Pink Floyd influence; they really were the masters of atmosphere.  Some of us met and bonded over our love of and respect for Floyd.  Rick Wakeman's "King Arthur" and "Journey to the Centre of the Earth" along with ELO's "Time" were big hits with me as a kid; I loved concept albums from a young age.  Around age five I started buying albums by Depeche Mode, OMD, and The Human League.  I fell in love with the otherworldly synthesizer sounds, they developed my appetite for stranger things I would later find tucked away in the prog gems of my parents' record collection.

CCA: If you could play a live gig with anyone--living or dead--who would you choose and why?

SA: Definitely Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd.  Despite seeing a few Earl's Court Pink Floyd shows in 1994, the curse of youth meant I did not get to see Floyd with Roger Waters until Live 8; the box that remains unticked is seeing Syd do his thing on stage.  Of course I would insists we play together only one minute so the remaining members of Pink Floyd could take the stage and perform longer...

Time for another music interlude...with the obvious Pink Floyd reference, I chose "Kaleidoscope."  The song title reminds me of the "Atomic Heart Mother" days and the music runs the gambit from "A Saucerful of Secrets" to "The Wall."  The background sounds are an intriguing addition in and of themselves; but as they weave their way through the clouds to wrap around guitars and vocals as smooth as old corduroy and as soothing as a glass of merlot, you feel your pulse slow and your mind grin.  Servants of Science pays homage while driving the chariot forward into untilled acreage.   

CCA: How are album sales doing and what are the challenges to getting your music out there in today's market?

SA: We've been blown away by the response; we're getting new orders every day!  People are hearing the album and really taking to it, and it's happened rather quickly.  A few months ago no one outside my circle of family and friends even knew we were making music and now when I log into our Bandcamp page I see a complete stranger has purchased our album, that is truly an amazing feeling.

I think the challenges are the same as always; trying to stand out in a crowd with something fresh. What has changed is how you do that.  The Internet is full of opportunity; social media  presents a lot of options for reaching out to people, often via others who help spread your music even further, and there is a nice knock-on affect to that.  Our prog appeal has certainly helped.  There is a wonderful camaraderie amongst prog fans, so much passion for and dedication to the genre.  Fans tell other fans about new bands all the time, they love discussing the music in depth.  People on different continents, having never met, immersed in lengthy conversations with each other because they both enjoy the same music and/or album; it genuinely means something to them which is amazing.

Insert subliminal purchase information here: Look for The Swan Song and find out more about Servants of Science at Servants of Science.  The album is also available at SoS iTunes and
SoS Bandcamp.  You can even follow them on Facebook SoS Facebook and Twitter @ServantsScience .

CCA: Any personal favorite(s) on the record?

SA: I'm torn between two.  "Peripheral" is a very personal song; writing and recording it was a very cathartic process, but more than anything the vocal performances of Neil and Helena really make it special.  When they launch into "How are you all from here?" I still get goosebumps, even after listening to it thousands of times!  They did the song an incredible service.  The other has to be "Burning in the Cold" because it has everything I've wanted to get out of a song.  It was the genesis of the entire project and got me thinking about songwriting in ways I hadn't before.  It is also the first time I'd written lyrics I felt comfortable showing to someone else.  There is stuff in there I am immensely proud of I didn't know I was capable of.

CCA: What are your feelings on the state of prog rock today?  As a new band, what are the challenges to getting recognized?

SA: Prog appears to be having a wonderful renaissance, it's in a very good place and growing.  Of course the term "prog" is much broader today than during the 70's boom.  Bands like Radiohead and God Speed! You Black Emperor, right through to bands like ours that draw inspiration from more obvious prog influences like Kraftwerk are now part of the conversation, and that's a good thing.

We have a number of gigs lined up with some great bands making a name for themselves and achieving success on their own terms.  I mentioned a camaraderie earlier; it extends to the bands as well as several have been very courteous to us, allowing an opportunity to share their audience.  Everone seems united toward a common goal--the music.

In terms of recognition it certainly seems like a minefield at first but everyone I've contacted has been very welcoming and kind.  The more people you reach out to and contact the more you will get recognized.  With social media the key is to not procrastinate.  If you are willing to put in the hours  whenever possible, people will start to take notice--or get sick of you! 😂

CCA: Is Servants of Science currently touring?

SA: We are not touring as such but we do have some exciting shows lined up!  Our campaign for The Swan Song kicks off in London at 229 The Venue. We will be performing with IT and Taikonaut March 14th, followed by an appearance March 31st at the Fusion Prog Festival.  This is an epic all day event with some well established and newer prog bands that are making waves.  April 21st we will be at The Prince Albert in Brighton in support of The Filthy Tongues.  Then back to London May 13th at the legendary Fiddler's Elbow in Camden where we share the stage with Hat's Off Gentlemen It's Adequate and the Tirith.  We will be headlining at The Hasland Theatre in Chesterfield June 30th with our good friends Lorna.  We've also secured a support slot with This Winter Machine August 26th at The Talking Heads in Southampton.

We're really fortunate to be in such great company for these gigs.  Hell, I'd like to be able to just go and watch!  More offers and opportunities are being sorted through; shaping up to be a busy year for Servants of Science.

Sate your appetite as we wind down with a slice of  "Servants of Science." Another haunting entry in the book of prog--but fear not.  Servants of Science rings of Hat's Off Gentlemen It's Adequate as this song strives to reach it zenith.  There is a heart punch buried below the surface just waiting to burst through the headphones.  I get the sense that Servants of Science are capable of squeezing emotion from dry sand.  The music is but a backdrop as vocals cut through the thin veil of your eardrums; not with a shriek but with so much fervor...and the calm gently washes back up on shore, lapping at your feet like an eager puppy.  I think it was Arlo Guthrie who said, "Once more, with feelin."


CCA: What else does the world need to know about Servants of Science?

SA: We are going to be your new favorite band.  Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow; but someday, and for the rest of your life...

I hope you have enjoyed listening to and learning about Servants of Science as much as I have enjoyed bringing them to you.  The prog garden is alive and well indeed, and as long as bands like this continue to nurture and grow, the future looks extremely bright.  Stuart said the prog genre has expanded over time; the umbrella covering a wider swath of music today than ever before.  I say good for the genre; more entries into the garden brings more fans, which can only be a good thing.

The search for all things prog once again pulls up stakes as the course for the next leg of the journey begins to take shape...until next time...

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