An Interview with Michel St-Pere, the main man behind Mystery and Unicorn Records:
VM: Hello Michel! We are acquainted with each other already for four years, but I am still not in the know of many aspects of your progressive activity. Let me put several questions to you, as I am sure that your story will be of interest to most, if not all, of the progressive music lovers who frequently visit ProgressoR.
VM: Keeping with tradition, I will open the interview with questions that concerns your early 'progressive' years: How and when you got acquainted -- with Rock in general, and Prog in particular -- and what were the first bands you had listened to? If possible, please also name your favorite bands "of all time" regardless of their belonging to any genres.
MSP: It was my father (also a guitar player) who introduced me to music with artists like The Ventures, Chet Atkins, and a lot of other sixties' bands & performers. Later, one of the friends of mine loaned me a Kiss album, which began to widen my musical horizon. I was about 12 when I became a huge fan of Kiss, though for several months I had already gotten into the music of The Beatles and Van Halen. At that time Progressive Rock was very popular in Quebec, and in the school that I was going to, many teens felt really happy wearing t-shirts with Genesis's logo. However, I think I was too young then to fully understand what Prog was really about at that time. The very first Progressive Rock work that I had listened to was "The Yes Album" with the amazing Yours Is No Disgrace, and at the age of fifteen I had really fallen in love with Progressive Rock.
Genesis were big stars in Quebec and of course RUSH, YES and ELP (who recorded their live album at the Montreal Olympic Stadium). I think that the reason it took me so long to get into Prog was that although I appreciated the level of musicianship of these bands, I did not like the attitude of their fans. You see I was listening to bands like Triumph, April Wine and this kind of rock was considered very silly by Prog-lovers, who in turn were saying and believing that they were listening to the only "real music" - music that only a few initiated people could understand -- and that even to this day, is what I hate the most about prog: the attitude of being superior, or 'music for more intelligent people'. I think this attitude has contributed to the fall of progressive rock in general and is not helping Progressive Rock to get more exposure these days because a lot of newer bands also have that attitude.
I don't have a favorite artist, I have been and still am a huge RUSH fan, Genesis, Enya, and Marillion have always been favorites of mine. I have listened to a lot of classical music also. In the newer bands, I like Dream Theater a lot, I was also very impressed by The Night Watch, they are great.
VM: And how did you become part of the Progressive Rock movement? Did you play in any bands before Mystery?
MSP: Not really, when I started MYSTERY in 1986, I wanted to make music that had elements of prog while being accessible to a wider audience, much like ASIA, Saga or Styx were doing at the time. We cut our first CD in 1992 and I was not even aware of the underground prog scene that was around until I was recording Theatre of the Mind and one day I was looking at magazines in a drug store and found this issue of Cyclone magazine. I was shocked to see that Progressive Rock was still alive and bought the magazine. Later I made contact the editor (Francois Anger) and he offered to send me a list of contacts in other countries, and that was the beginning of what is now UNICORN RECORDS and also MYSTERY, since no one even cared for our music in Canada, I suddenly found and audience for my music in other countries. That was like a big thrill to discover all of those people who were working for the same cause I have been working for many years.
VM: What inspired you to form your own band?
MSP: This is a hard question to answer cause really I don't know. I was 11 and I had my own band. It seems like I always wanted to have a band and it always seemed natural for me to be the one who called to make sure everyone was on time at rehearsals and at gigs, so really I don't remember saying to myself, "I want to form a band"; it has always been there.
VM: Mystery is one of the well-known contemporary progressive bands, and the process of formation and development of such bands is always interesting. Please tell me of the earliest period of Mystery's activity - from the very beginning and right up to the day when the band's debut eponymous album was released.
MSP: Around 1986 I was in college and I wanted to write music and record a CD, The project was more of a studio project. I wrote songs and at the same time I had just gotten my first 16 track studio so I was at the same time learning all aspects of recording. The initial project was a 5 song demo that had never been released, however we came very close to getting a major deal with it. There have been a lot of personal changes in the band and after reforming the band with new members, in the early 90's we finally got the CD project back on track. It took close to 2 years to record the 5-song CD and in 1992 the CD finally came out independently. At that time I was still not aware of the underground prog scene and the CD was not a success. However I am very proud of that CD and even if it shows limitation of our knowledge and experience, this CD is one of the best productions I have ever made for MYSTERY.
VM: Did you do any shows then or later?
MSP: Yes we did a lot of shows and the band was becoming very tight and sounded really good. But when the time came to record the second CD, things got a little confused with the direction the new CD should take. I wanted to write longer songs in a more progressive rock style, while the band thought that we should go on a more commercial route, since our first CD proved that no one would listen to songs longer than 3 minutes with long intros and time signature changes.
VM: What was the cause of the 4-year gap between the first two Mystery albums?
MSP: A lot of different things happened. First, we had to digest that our first CD didn't get any attention at all. Tensions were forming in the band. When the recording for Theatre of the Mind started, Stephane, the drummer, got really sick and because of a virus he lost use of his legs. That kind of placed all of the new CD project on ice. It was not our intention to let Stephane go so we told him to get well and meanwhile we would work on new material for the CD. Stephane later developed a technique with electronic pads that he could play without his legs, We played a few shows and continued to record what was to become Theatre of the Mind. We also had a lot of studio problems where several tracks would have to be redone. I think this album is very good despite of all the problems we encountered; but again, there was a division between band members - some of the members thought that this CD was very poor production-wise.
VM: You have written the vast majority of music and lyrics for Mystery. This, in my view, demonstrates that the selection of materials for each of the band's albums was purposeful rather than spontaneous. Am I right in my supposition?
MSP: Yes you are correct. I don't write songs to fit into a concept, but in the end when it is time to select them for an album, they need to have a certain link together. So there are songs that are good but won't get onto the album because it just doesn't make sense to put them with all of the rest. I am not a good writer when the theme is dictated. I wrote my favorite songs with spontaneous inspiration.
VM: Now it's time to ask you, what turned you to create your own label? First of all, I know that you reissued through Unicorn Records the second and third albums of Mystery. But judging by your involvement into the business and management aspects of the business, it is apparent that your creative independence is not necessarily the governing aim of that quite adventurous undertaking.
MSP: At first it was because no one else was interested in the music I was making. But I needed also to keep a certain creative independence. At the time, I was more of an artist who didn't want to know anything about the business side of the music. I came to a point where I had no choice of taking my music career into my own hands. I discovered that there was a market for the music I was writing and as I was doing promotion for Theatre of the Mind and later Destiny?, I learned a lot about how the business was working, and I also made a lot of contacts all around the world with Distributors, magazines, radios and a lot of people who were into that kind of music. I started to like the business side very much and I was enjoying myself doing promotion. After the great results I got from Destiny? I started to think that I could expand my label activities to more than MYSTERY. At first it was a bit like a roller coaster ride but now it is starting to be going on the right direction.
VM: By the way, what was the label that Mystery's first three albums were originally released under?
MSP: Apart from the first eponymous CD in 1992 that was released on PAGI RECORDS (this was our management label) all other MYSTERY CDs have been released on UNICORN RECORDS.
VM: The quality of Mystery's music was growing constantly during the band's activity in the 1990s, and the last studio album to date: "Destiny?" is certainly the best one. Since then, why is there no new material? (Of course, the 2000's compilation cannot be considered in this specific case). I understand that you became very busy after you formed Unicorn Records, but I doubt that your work on the label is the only factor of Mystery's silence since 1998. Please correct me if I am mistaken and fill us in with the details.
MSP: You are right, my work at UNICORN is not the only cause of this break. I think splitting up with long time singer and friend Gary Savoie was for me a big disappointment and looking back at this now, I think this episode just did it for me. I thought at the time that everything was OK, but in fact it was not. You put all your energy into something and you think that your partner is 100% with you. I was so into it that I was not realizing that Gary was not into it anymore. Even though Destiny? was promising better days for MYSTERY, I came to the point where I was wondering if it was all worth the work and effort, and I neglected other parts of my life for a dream that would never work anyway. You know - all of those questions that make you lose interest in what you love the most. So I would say that it is UNICORN RECORDS that have benefited the most of this situation. The label kept me in touch with music, and the more I do it, the more I enjoy that business side of music.
VM: I know that you do all the work on the label alone. Well, I also work alone on ProgressoR, but there is assuredly a huge difference between editing a webzine and running a label. It's even hard to imagine one man being a general manager, promo manager, economist, planner, statistician, etc, again, and over. You probably have a lot of different problems, haven't you? What are the most vital among them?
MSP: In the beginning it was easy because I had only MYSTERY to take care of. Now, 5 years later, UNICORN RECORDS has 11 releases with 7 different artists and the work keeps piling up. It does get crazy at times but I have always managed to get the work done. The biggest problem I have right now is to make people understand that I cannot always answer them right away. And some people don't like that. But if they understand the situation now it is OK.
VM: Do you see any concrete ways that would help you to change that difficult situation?
MSP: Well there is only one way to help this label to grow. I need to get some people to work with me very soon. I have talked to a few people so far and maybe I will find the ones that really want to do it. But it is hard to find people that really want to do it - when you contact them they all seem very interested but when you explain how it works and all the work that has to be done, then they are not so thrilled anymore. Also I need to find people that really like the music that UNICORN is releasing and who understand what the market really is.
VM: And what do you think about the overall state of affairs in the world of Progressive today? Is it better than five years ago, for instance, or quite the contrary?
MSP: I think it is about the same. The only change I see is that there are a lot more CD's released today, but I don't think that there are a lot more people buying Prog CDs than before. Also with all this technology becoming very cheap and accessible, there is a lot of poor quality music being release and that is really not good for Progressive Rock (or any other style of music). Progressive rock fans want quality more than quantity, and we as artist, label, radio, magazine and webzine have to raise the level of quality. This is, I think, the only way progressive rock will survive and evolve.
VM: Of course, I can't omit the question about your vision of the future of both of the main 'progressive' constituents of your life. In other words, what are your plans concerning the future of Unicorn Records and Mystery?
MSP: I am actually putting the final touch to the new MYSTERY CD, "Beneath the Veil of Winter's Face" with new singer Benoit David, and Steve Gagne on drums. I hope to finish it so I can release it in the Fall of 2003. As for UNICORN RECORDS, well I hope I will release more good music for years to come. I just released THE ADDISON PROJECT and HEON. I am looking for new artists right now, and of course the new HAMADRYAD and XINEMA is on the way and Spaced Out is already working on a new CD also. So I have a lot of projects to keep me occupied for a while
VM: Many thanks for doing the interview Michel. With all sincerity, I wish you to remain in the ranks with both of your label and band for years to come.
MSP: It is always a pleasure to talk with you Vitaly, thank you for supporting my work.