ProgressoR / Uzbekistan Progressive Rock Pages

Interviews of Prog

Arne Schafer
Arne Schafer
Interview by Vitaly Menshikov

Arne, ich danke Ihnen im voraus dafuer, dass Sie zustimmt haben, dieses Interview fuer unseren Websin zu beantworten. Ich persoenlich bin ein grosser Liebhaber Ihrer Werke und wuerde Ihnen gerne ein paar Fragen stellen. Ich weiss genau, dass vielen Progrockfans Ihre Meinung interessant ist.

Thank you, Arne, that you have agreed to give this interview for our webzine. I'm personally a great fan of your creation and will gladly ask you some questions. I'm sure, your opinion is interesting to many Progressive Rock fans.

1. My first question may seem traditional. How did you get acquainted with music in general, and with Rock in particular? Did anybody instill it in you, or the interest appeared itself? To be brief, let's recall the old days, how did it start?

Well, that's a long story. My first musical impressions came from my parents. My Mother performs ballet dancing (just as a hobby) and likes ballet music. By her I was early introduced to the music of Stravinsky and Prokofjew who wrote a lot of ballet music. Till now the early ballet music of Stravinsky is one of my favourites in modern classics. Therefore it was later easy for me to get into such rather difficult musical stuff. As a consequence most of my favourite classical music is from the 20st century (Allan Pettersson, Dimitri Schostakovitsch, Igor Stravinsky, Paul Hindemith, Arnold Schonberg, Gyeorgy Ligeti, Arthur Honnegger, etc.)

My second big influence came from my father who is a great fan of modern Jazz, but also heard a lot of Beatles, Zappa (yes he's a big Zappa fan) and Jethro Tull. So I grew up with these records and they were carved into my brain. Later it often happened that I grabbed a record from my fathers collection which I thought I had never heard before. But as I put it on the record player I found that I was already well familiar with the music because I heard it so many times before in the background. I still have a strong Jazz influence which you can hear in my soloing. Although I really like to improvise I feel my improvisational possibilities on the guitar are not variable enough to treat the listener with more of it than I do on my albums. I think a very good balance between prog and jazzy influences was captured on the first UK album with Allan Holdsworth on the guitar who is one of my favourite guitar players. None of the involved musicians really liked this album because they all had to make too much compromises to get the music together, but for me it's the ideal mixture.

At early age I liked marching music and used to drum on everything which made sounds. At the age of 12 to 13 I discovered the Beatles (some cassettes recorded by my father) and heard them all night long. At the same time I began to play drums on washing powder drums with a tambourine attached to one of them. My friend Torsten (Winkel, now a well known Jazz guitar player living in USA under the pseudonym TorstenDeWinkel) played guitar and the both of us sang. I still have recordings with us playing Nowhere Man before clipping of our voices. With 14 my Mother bought me an accoustic guitar. At that time we also began to experiment with primitive playback recording techniques. At the age of 15 we had our first band "Topas" together and tried to make some sort of Jazz Rock. Even at this time most of our material was original. Later I played in another instrumental Rockjazz band called Avatar which featured mostly my own compositions, moving a little bit into a prog like direction. In 1986 I joined a New Wave band called Vague Venture. After some struggeling about the musical direction we broke up and I formed Versus X together with a fellow student keyboarder, our former drummer and our mixer Andi Tofahrn who is still with us. Around 1988 I played a solo concert in a small club and a keyboarder came on to the stage and asked me to play with him because he recognized my strong Hammill influence. This was Ekkehard Nahm our Keyboarder. Soon after our former Keyboarder quit because ha wanted to do more film music and Ekkehard came in. Now this was absolutely the right chemistry. After 12 years of classical training on the piano and church organ he can play almost everything immediately during the process of composition which enables us to do that very efficiently together. On the new album more material comes from his side and the compositions came out really great this time.

In 1993 we produced our first Versus X CD on our own cost. One of them landed in the player of former Gernman MUSEA representative and now Angular Records boss Stefan Kost. He liked it and played it to Bernard Gueffier and the other people at MUSEA, together with some of my solo stuff. They were impressed and wanted to do a CD with us. But as our Versus X CD was already on the market they decided to first let me do a solo album and to release the next Versus X album on MUSEA.

2. You have by now produced two full-fledged, wonderful albums, that are in fact solo albums, not under your name, but under the name of the alleged band Apogee. And yet Apogee is Arne Schafer himself. You completely compose all the music and the lyrics, produce them, play all instruments, without any outside musicians. You even do the job of the sound director! Tell us please how and why you reached this decision? And why is it Apogee, and not Arne Schafer (solo)?

All through the years I also continued to produce my solo stuff with the recording technology getting better every year. In the early days a friend told me about an "album" they had made of their music. But it turned out that it was only a cheap cassette without even a cover, and I thought well, this can be made much better with litte effort. So I produced cassettes with real cover art using photos with rubber letters on it and tried to make it look as professional as possible. Through the years I made around 25 of those cassettes with approximately LP length. So this kind of approach has already a long history. Apogge came up because Bernard thought it would be better to use a group name due to reasons of marketing psycology. I found the astronomical expression Apogee (meaning the point of greatest distance of the moon in its orbit around the earth) which is also a song name on the Under Wraps album by Jethro Tull.

3. You record LP albums of more than an hour playing time. However, your programs come out once in three years. Is it demanding to work at an album all alone, or the considerable time period between the albums is due to other reasons?

Well, I am by no means a professional artist. I work as a consulting engineer and have a family with two young kids. You can imagine that I have to work very effectively on this kind of music to get it produced in due time. Our main focus is on quality rather than on quantity and for the realistion of such a complex musical approach one needs such a long time to let the ideas get fomed and connected properly. You can see the effect of not taking the appropriate time for composing with many emerging bands who, after two or three albums, seem to have been burned out because of external pressure. This leads to letting things loose and going for the more obvious riffs and structures which again will draw you into the mainstram sump very soon. This is definitely the opposite of what we are after. It is hard enough to keep a high quality level which is once achieved and to always force yourself to get the most out of you. If there is no need for a short release schedule why go for it ? This is a very great advantage you have as a non professional musician. You just don't have to care about the commercial music industry. I am very thankful to the people at MUSEA to provide us this freedom.

4. The music of the Apogee project can be characterized as a quite complex Prog Rock with solid structures and rich symphonic arrangements. This is not the kind of music for every single Prog-head in general. As an example, I'm not sure that most fans of the so-called Neo Progressive will hardly comprehend and, consequently, appreciate your work. Do you deliberately compose and perform profound, serious Prog Rock rather in the vein of the "old good 70s" than in the simplified manner of presenting Progressive music that came to being already in the 80s. Or does it come out like this by itself? I think in any case that, presently, you are one of the few non-conformists who are not after commercial goals when creating your original works.

My style is simply defined by my favourite musical elements, and these are mainly present in the best works of the 70ies prog bands Genesis, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant, Yes, etc. The structure of composition of these works is much more elaborate than the so called Neo Prog of the 80ies. I don't like arrangements and musical phrases which are too obvious, too much the usual thing, especially in prog where there is so much of potential freedom which is rarely used. The quality of composition, variety and originality of musical ideas of the great classic progressive bands is hardly reached by most todays prog acts. There are a few exceptions of course, like Anglagaard, Anekdoten, Univers Zero, Thinking Plague, 5 Uus, but these are mostly in the avantgarde section of prog. I believe that there is a lot of space left for great prog within the more accessible vein too, it just has to be composed with great care and by selecting only the very best ideas and arrangements. This takes a lot of time and energy and often even leads through a period of frustration until suddenly everything comes together. You have to be very pacient and only a few musicians really take that time required to let things develop, to create a bow of tension and an emotional intensity which really lasts.

5. It's a known fact to many Prog-heads, that along with the solo project Apogee you also actively perform in the Versus X band. Are you the leader of this band too, or the collective approach dominates here? Introduce the other members to us, please, and say something about the music material that comes out under this name. What are the differencies and similarities between the two?

Versus X is definitely a collective approach and this is also the main difference to Apogee. In Versus X mainly Ekkehard (Nahm) on the Keyboards and myself are composing in close cooperation. Ekkehard is a classically trained keyboarder who can play and develop musical ideas almost instantaneously. He is strongly influenced by Tony Banks and plays a lot of piano based arpeggios. Since I introduced Univers Zero to him his melodies and harmonies got darker and even more complicated. Most of our complex instrumental parts were composed mainly by him. My contributions are the more song like material, the vocal melodies and guitar riffs. We are perfectly complementing each other in the process of composition which is providing a great synergy effect.

Since one year we play with our new drummer Uwe Villmar who has great skill and a real punch on his instrument. He turned out to be the perfect drummer for us. Coming from straighter rock background he found a grat freedom of expression for his drumming in our music, and he plays exactly the style we were always after. I used to dream of a drummer like Barriemore Barlow of Jethro Tull who could use the double bassdrum integrated in his style. Now we have got one.

For some weeks we also got a new bass player who also is very good at the guitar and can sing. His name is Jorg Schneider and he fits in very well because he has the same musical influences. We can now perform arrangements with two guitars and a second vocal line, as well as Genesis like arrangements with Ekkis Moog Taurus bass pedals.

From the beginning our mixer Andreas Tofahrn is with us, who also cares about our equipment and the recording.

6. Quite obvious, that Apogee is a pure studio project, where one man creates, even though with the help of overdubs etc, thanks to the present technical possibilities in the studio. And is Versus X a studio band too, or you go for gigs and tours?

Yes, Versus X is a real live band, which is another big difference to Apogee. We are usually playing only 2 - 4 gigs a year because we are all non professionals and its sometimes hard to get all members together for a gig. However we would like to do more gigs if possible, but the potential locations for gigs with such music is very limited and it is often hard to persuade the owner of the clubs that there are some people out there who are after songs of 20 minute length. With Apogee I have the freedom to create whatever I want without having to make any compromises. Thus, Apogee is really a reflection of my musical soul. On the other hand the process of composition is very laborious if you are on your own and its hard to keep a feeling for what is really great and what sould be revised. That's why it is so great to have both possibilities of musical expression.

7. Are your albums issued only by this great, oldest and biggest Prog label (I mean "Musea") or anywhere else? Are they issued in Japan (where they appreciate Progressive music) or anywhere else?

Actually I don't really know. Musea Albums can be bought all over the world by mail order, but I think the number of record stores outside of France which sell Musea records is not very big. However most people in the prog scene today buy their albums via mail order or through the internet, which is the perfect medium for creative nieces.

8. Are you satisfied with the course of things in Apogee and Versus X alike? Does your production get sold well, or on the contrary, and do you believe (like I do in this case) that most Prog fans would rather buy Neo-Progressive? If so, why do you think more accessible (at times primitive) finds a greater feedback in the souls of the listeners, thus bringing no small dividends to its authors and producers?

20 years ago I would not have believed that I would have the opportunity to make music so close in quality to my favourite influences, so close to my musical visions and to get it published to a worldwide audience. Thanks to the computer technology I even can do that alone today. In this view I am very satisfied with the course of things. As far as I can assess the sales of our CDs are slightly above the break even point of the production costs for Musea. Our best selling Album is the latest Versus X album "Disturbance" which sold about 1000 copies in two years. Fortunately Musea is a non-profit organisation and can afford to also release exceptional music with small commercial potential. Interestingly, the last Apogee album "Sisyphos" reached No. 1 of the Musea sales chart in May 1998 immediately after its release. Actually the quantity of sold copies was not that high but this shows that the few fans of our music are really enthusiastic and are always looking foreward to releases of this kind of music.

For most listeners music does not play such a dominant role as for prog musicians and prog enthusiastics. Consequently, these listeners do not want music to be so complicated. They don't want to get into the matter so deeply as it is required to let the emotional intensity of complex prog reveal itself. Most of us prog fand had some kind of a key experience with a complicated tune like Close to the Edge by Yes, which seemed very confusing on the first encounter but after listening to it frequently and carefully revealed an exceptional emotional intensity. A listener who never got beyond this point will hardly get an access to complicated prog music. And the more elaborate such compositions get, the smaller the potential audience becomes. Only in a certain cultural environment, like in the early 70ies, when also the mass media got in touch with such music there is a chance for good prog to reach a wider audience. Its really a matter of musical education. If you have the right musical background, you will have easy access even to complex prog music.

9. The last question concerns your plans for the present and the future. What are busy with at the moment in the frame of Apogee and Versus X? Are you going to make the third solo album? What are the future plans of the Versus X members, uncluding yourself? And finally, what would you like to say to the fans of your music?

We are presently recording the third Versus X album. It will be even more complex as the last one, with very elaborated melodies and unusual harmonic and rhythmic structures. It will contain 4 songs, three of them over the 15 minute mark. It is going to be our best, I'm sure. I am curious about what Jorg, our new bass and guitar player will bring in. He is also a composer and seems to have great ideas to be included in our compositions.

One track for the third Apogee album is already recorded and the basic structure of a second one I have just completed. Both are lengthy tunes but I also want to include some shorter songs and maybe a solo piece for spanish guitar.

I'd like to thank all fans of our music very much for their continued support. We will do our best to provide you with the best of our musical ideas in the future.

(VM) Once again, thank you for this interview. I wish you further creative success! Welcome ! Good luck for you and your family.

MP3 samples:
Versus X: Curtain Call
Apogee: Cruel Jokes

October 28, 1999.

ProgressoR / Uzbekistan Progressive Rock Pages