Interview with Marc Wagnon of Tunnels, Brand X, and solo fame
VM: Dear Marc,
Thank you very much for your willingness to give an interview for Progressor.
First please tell me of yourself and your relations with music from the very beginning.
Have you a special musical training? Also, how have you been involved in so called contemporary Progressive Music movement and what were the bands and / or projects that you've participated in before the band Tunnels did appear on a map of Progressive?
MW: This us a pretty big question to answer, but I will try. I guess I was always attracted to percussion instruments, I remember always getting very excited as soon as a marching band would let the drums play solo, I did get some toy drums as a kid but they never lasted, due to my enthusiastic approach! My parents decided to put me through some serious musical training, and I joined a music school where I learned about the basics of music knowledge and started playing the piano, an instrument I always enjoyed playing ever since; it prepared me well for my later move to the vibes. But at around 15 years old I got my first drum set and formed my first band with some friends. Up to that time I was listening to the Beatles, and a bit of the Stones. But English rock was exploding at the time (early seventies), a period that must have been one of those unique moments in music history, like the Baroque era, the classical era in the mid 18th century, and the early 20th in Paris, where music takes a turn and influences the following decades. So although I was not aware of it, the music of the 70's, that shaped my musical tastes, would endure for a long time. And this is something that surprised me, and to some extent frustrated me. To me, that pace of innovation and creativity was just normal; I expected it to keep at the same pace for years to come. The only place I could be was in the "contemporary Progressive Music movement" in its widest scope, jazz, rock or classical. Unfortunately, for many reasons, it became marginal, people's ability to keep up with changes with music stopped and things got more difficult because of that. To come back to my training I joined a classical conservatory where I got most of my formal training, I then moved to the States, where I studied at the Berklee School of music for a year, before moving to NYC.
I work with many people in the NY "downtown scene" beside my group Shadowlines and the most notable is the group Dr Nerve that I performed with for over ten years.
VM: I have a wonderful feeling, really, to have a talk with you, as Brand X is my favourite Jazz-Fusion band already for many years. And although you know that I like very much the albums of the other projects of yours, including solo, let me please begin with Brand X, especially since there are many moments in the band's history that still remain obscure to me and lots of the other Brand X fans. So, tell me a story of 'New' Brand X, beginning with the formation of the band's current line-up in the middle of the 1990s, through the tours the band did at the time, and to conclude with the release of the band's best, in my view, album "Manifest Destiny". (I am going to ask you about the present situation within the frame of Brand X and of the band's future a bit later).
MW: Brand X is a great example of that 70's movement I just talked about, so much creativity went into the band's music. This should be to no one's surprise that the breakup of the band in the early eighties was due to commercial pressure put to the band by outside forces. So about ten years later Percy and John, both living in the States were offered the opportunity to record an album. At the time we were already performing with Tunnels as a trio, so Frank became the drummer for the date. The group was not even supposed to be called Brand X, but listening to the tracks, it became apparent that they had the unmistakable signature of Percy's unique fretless sound and John's fast and screaming jazz/rock guitar that defined the Brand X sound. It was obvious to resurrect the name for this recording. Two US tours were organized in '92 and '93 and you can hear the band perform live on CD 2 of the Brand X "Timeline" album on Buckyball. After this the band stopped performing, partly due to the fact that the record company defaulted on every body.
VM: By the way, can you explain the next: what does the name of the band (Brand X) exactly mean?
MW: Well nothing really, if I recall what Percy told me, after recording their first album, they still had no name for the band, so somebody suggested Brand X as a joke, and the name stuck.
VM: I've heard all Brand X albums and out of most of them I like "Manifest Destiny". In my view, on this, completely balanced album with an obvious united stylistics from the first to the last note, the band have reached its creative pick. I'll listen to it now and again probably until I die. Each track from the "Manifest Destiny" album brings a unique blend of Classic (complex and truly progressive) Jazz-Fusion and Symphonic Art Rock, raised to the power of the outstanding musicianship of each of the four Brand X members. What's more, each composition and the album as a whole has some magic. Tell me a little of the creation of this album.
MW: After "X-communication" and the touring of the early 90's the Brand X was inactive for about three years. Percy, Frank and I were joined by Van Manakas and performed on the east coast and in Europe. In late 1995 a German company expressed interest in doing a new Brand X album. The budget was higher than it was for the last one, so more people would be involved in it. It was basically a meeting from east coast where we were based and west coast where John was based and was working with Franz Push (who had worked on the Fire Merchant album). We put together tunes written by John and Percy (one of them like "Stellarator" we were performing with Tunnels at that time) and headed to LA, where the session was to be held. It was my first real encounter with John and after the one rehearsal we got before the recording, everything fell into place. It was two weeks of intense sessions; we were very fortunate to work with David Hentshel as our producer who made the album sound as well as it does. Some tunes were all written before the session, but some like the title track "Manifest Destiny" was just put together live in the studio. I wrote "Five Drops" during down time in the studio, I was playing around with it and John happened to come by and start improvising on it, and said in his unique British/LA accent: "they want me to do an acoustic tune, lets do this one on the CD". I think this is how the best records are made: 50% planning and 50% spontaneity, which is a very delicate balance to achieve. We were fortunate that the whole thing worked so well.
VM: Of course, the recent release of "The X-Files" double CD, consisting mostly of unreleased tracks of Brand X and other projects that John Goodsall and Percy Jones were involved in during the 1980s, is an excellent addition to the band's discography. But, are there some plans about composing, recording and releasing another new studio album on Brand X's agenda? (To read "The X-Files" detailed review click here)
MW: I am myself not impressed so much about the X-files - although it has an interesting collection of tracks, the quality of the recording is quite uneven, and there are also some questions on how it was put together. There are no plans to do any recording with this line-up as Brand X, although the new Tunnels record features John for three cuts. There is something that probably has been well kept from the public view. It is that Brand X members have gone through some very bad business deals, and John and Percy have been treated very unfairly by about every label they worked with. It got so bad that they became (in particular Percy) pretty weary of the name Brand X. Because it brings strong feelings that are not always good. So I would not write it out all together; it will probably happen if the right situation occurs.
VM: While I know that the complete Brand X line-up plus a wonderful vocalist Sarah Pillow are now actively touring under the name of Nuovo Musiche, can the fans of the band (including myself) expect that there will be the tours of Brand X (exactly) in the near future?
MW: Our focus is about the new projects; as creative artists we cannot let ourselves dwell in the past. It is amazing that we were able to put together this line up and go on tour with it. And it did work very well; the audiences were all very receptive of this unique combination of Baroque melodies and jazz/rock. Sarah Pillow is an incredibly versatile singer, I cannot think of anybody that has the knowledge and vocal technique that can hold her own with such a line-up, but it worked as well if not better than on the CD. Nobody really knew what to expect, but we were all pleasantly surprised. Brand X might or might not perform as such, but to have this line-up is a treat no matter what the project is.
VM: It is well known that, apart from Brand X, all of the band current members have regularly worked and still work under the banners of other projects of (let's call it conditionally) the current Brand X & Co conglomerate. First of all I mean (of course) Nuovo Musiche, just mentioned above. Tell me a little of the history of this project.
MW: John does work with a variety of groups in LA, he is in particular about to record an album with a contemporary flamenco project, and John is a wonderful acoustic player, as the Nuove Musiche album attests to. For Percy, Frank and I, Tunnels and Nuove Musiche are the main projects. Nuove Musiche germinated from a Brand X tour on the east coast when John stayed at our place in NYC. We were just hanging out in our flat and John started to play, and Sarah joined by singing a classical aria, we all looked at each other and were so surprised at how the two styles worked well together. We started trying other tunes and came up with three that sounded really good. We recorded them on my old 4track cassette deck, and decided that we would pursue this further in the future. Well it took 4 years but we finally did it and wrote more arrangements to fill a whole cd.
VM: I know that lots of Prog-lovers, including the majority of all Brand X, Tunnels, and Marc Wagnon / Shadowlines fans, would be happy to hear another album from the creative alliance of Brand X and Sarah Pillow. Is Nuovo Musiche just a one-time project or it is at least not impossible that there will be a continuation of its studio activity?
MW: This is, I think, a very successful mix, and the latest tour convinced me that it is worth pursuing. So we will start working on a second CD this year. John lives in LA and we are in NYC, so we will work separately initially; we have an extension of Buckyball on the west coast, so we might do some work there, and some in New York.
VM: Along with Percy Jones, you are one of the two masterminds of the brilliant band Tunnels, which is the quartet with the three (of the four) Brand X members in the line-up. I am, however, inclined to think that originally there were you Marc at the head of the formation of Tunnels. I am sure, lots of the Brand X fans love (or will love as soon as they become acquainted with) the works of Tunnels as much as they love the Brand X albums. Doubtless, they're also more than interested in knowing the history of this band - a real blood brother of Brand X. So please tell it - at least briefly, but don't forget of a traditional "Future Plans" point. (The review on the Tunnels self-titled debut album can be read via clicking here)
MW: Actually this is Percy that initiated the band, he was performing solo for the few years before the formation of the band, and he wanted to work again with other musicians. I heard about it through another bass player and contacted Percy, who had already talked to Frank about it. We decided to get together and jam. We hit it off right away and Percy told us that he was interested in forming a new unit that would be more a group of individual players rather than his group. That turned out to be a great choice, because we all have a very well defined style and musical personality, so the only way it would work, would be everybody sharing the stage and also, on the other hand, being able to play a supportive role. We performed as a trio for a year and then Van Manakas joined the band just before we recorded our first album. As for our future plans, we have just recorded a new CD called "Progressivity", where we return as a trio, Van moved out of NY, and the way we went recording this CD, it needed a lot of time in the studio developing new ideas, so we put down hours of music, and then sifted through the best parts, additionally we wrote some tunes and invited two guests to perform with us, one being John Goodsall, and the other violinist Mark Feldman. We are planning another Nuove and Tunnels tour for the spring, as well as some Tunnels gigs, so far only in the US, but Europe should happen soon.
VM: It's time to talk of the two Marc Wagnon solo albums, and I find your solo creation no less impressive than any of the ones I mention above. Also, how and where have you found such remarkable (if not great) musicians as Sarah Pillow (vocals, lyrics) and Van Manakas (guitars)? Are you thinking of the third solo work of yours? (Read the review on Marc Wagnon's second album here)
MW: I met Sarah through a friend who kept telling me about how a great singer she was, I was working on some project and I wanted to hear how they would sound with a singer. Sarah had just moved to NYC, and was open to try new projects, we did one session in my old east village apartment, and I was really impressed, the rest is history. I know Van for the longest time, He was one of the first musicians I met when I moved to NYC, we've done many project, and traveled many miles on the road together. I would ad that in a more general terms, that what made me meet all these musicians, including Percy, Frank, and all the others I worked with is that we all where attracted to New York, a city that is so vibrant that few can resist its attraction.
I have many ideas about new solo projects; I have to decide which will be the next one. One of my ideas is to do a CD all on the acoustic vibes and marimba, working with Latin American and Brazilian rhythms. I would work with a pianist, percussionist, and a few horns. I also have a long running desire to write something about Einstein and the theory of relativity. It would be some kind of fusion opera that could be staged, or performed as a concert. I also would like to work with African and middle-eastern rhythms, using foreign languages as theme source for the melodies (every language creates it own musical shape).
VM: What can you tell about your collaborative work with Mike Clark and Paul Jackson and what are your thoughts on the final result of this work - the "Conjunction" album, which sounds more jazzy than any of the other albums of Brand X & Co? (Click here to read the review on "Conjunction" most of the tracks of which were penned by Marc.)
MW: I met Mike through Frank, he was a mentor of sorts to him, and Mike approached me about putting out an album of his own group at the time on Buckyball. We worked on the tracks and recorded them; but in the mean time Mike got another offer from another more established jazz label. So the record did not come out on our label, but Mike and I decided to put an album together, and since Paul Jackson was going to be in town I thought that it would be a great opportunity to get this legendary rhythm section together for a new album. Mike and I then got other players involved to beef up the initial trio. I wrote four tracks and Jed Levy, Neal Kirkwood, and Paul brought more tunes to top the album. The session had to be done in four days, so it was pretty intense. I was also engineering, a tough act to balance. But we pulled it off and there is an eclectic musical feel that is very unique on this CD. As far as the more jazzy style, there is a side of me that is strongly rooted in Jazz, and it obviously comes out in this recording.
VM: Finally, it's time to talk of your business which is inseparably linked with the music of today's only 'Titanic' Jazz-Fusion band Brand X and the Brand X based Conglomerate of the same 'Titanic' quality (and that's great, in my view). So please tell me about your "Buckyball Music", about its past and current activity and, of course, your future plans concerning the label.
MW: To start a label was not a thing I had in mind when I started performing, but after seeing the general incompetence, and borderline lawlessness of other labels, Sarah Pillow and I decided to start a label that, besides producing great music, would try to give the creators (musicians, composers), the respect they are entitled to. And to not be treated by the label as if the label was doing them a favor in releasing their music. Music, or in more general terms art, and business are two contradicting concepts. The former is about ideas and visions, which create wealth (as happiness, health and knowledge are wealth). The later is about ideas and visions, which creates material wealth. We named our company "Buckyball Music" mainly because of our admiration for the ideas of Buckminster Fuller, an inventor, architect, engineer and philosopher that among many things designed Geodesic dome structures. He was a precursor in many fields. One of his main goals was to redefine wealth, be redirecting our priorities as a species, in order for us to survive and prosper on our (as Buckminster call our world) "spaceship earth". So we are in a small way participating in this effort. This is a tall order, since there are many conflicting priorities, between music and business. But we are working to resolve these differences daily in the running of our company. As far as future projects, we are publishing our ninth release in March: the new Tunnels CD; and then we are working on re-releasing "X-communication" as a double CD, which will include some unreleased live tracks. We will also release a new "Nuove Musiche" and a new solo album by myself.
VM: Thank you very much, Marc for doing the interview for us. But I am sure this interview will be more than just interesting to a lot of Brand X, Tunnels, Nuovo Musiche, and Shadowlines fans and many, many other Prog-lovers as well.