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Interviews of Prog


Mike Sary
Mike Sary
(FRENCH TV)

Interview with the former, leader and the main French TV mastermind

French TV - official web-site:
http://wingedsphere.com/ftv/).

This interview also will be published in the French (!) Acid Dragon magazine (quarterly, in English, published by Thierry Sportouche; Acid Dragon online:
http://perso.club-internet.fr/acidrago/ad2.html).

VM: First off, let me begin with a traditional request. Tell us about yourself and your first acquaintance with music.

MS: Hmmm, let's see... Mike Sary, born 4/14/57 in Peoria, Illinois USA...lived on an 160 acre farm til I joined the Army after high school (1975). Stayed in the Army in Texas for 3 years, knocked around the country working a lot of different jobs [heavy equipment operator; off-shore oil rigs; welder; carpenter & construction work; etc..] til settling in Louisville, Kentucky in 1980. Married twice, 2 sons [Nathan-19 years old, from 1st wife + Aaron-21 months old with current wife Eileen]. Musically, the earliest stuff I remember hearing is the old country music & cowboy music & truck driver songs my dad loved [Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, Hank Williams, Eddie Arnold, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Johnny Cash]. I especially liked the guys who did funny novelty songs like Roger Miller, Homer & Jethro, Del Reeves. I remember seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan like everyone else, but I thought they were kinda stupid at the time and didn't understand all the fuss til a few years later when they went "druggy". I think cartoon music [Carl Stallings, from the Warner Brothers cartoons, and Scott Bradley from the old Tom & Jerry cartoons in particular] was probably a big influence also. I think it may have had a lot to do with my feeling that musical compositions didn't need to be so "linear" and logical.

VM: What were the bands you had participated in before you formed French TV?

MS: Nothing of note-just a bunch of rookies who never got past the "garage" stage, other than the occasional beer party.

VM: Can you tell a history of your life-work, - the band French TV. How did it all start?

MS: Well, in 1981, I met drummer Steve Roberts at a local record store he managed [he happened to be playing VdGG's "Pawn Hearts" on the sound system!]. We talked, and as it turned out he happened to be a musician too. We soon began playing music together, and he happened to know a guy who played sax & keys named Jeff Jones. We quickly began writing together [altho Jeff was the main writer] and called the trio FESTUNG AMERIKA. We only playing in public twice, at a local punk club, and the poor reception caused Jeff to re-think how to appeal to live audiences, so he consequently wanted us to play "punk-ier" music. Steve & I said "no thanks", and so Jeff quit. After a lot of thought, Steve & I decided to drop the idea of performing live, carry on as a duo temporarily, and continue writing more progressive material, hoping we could eventually find other players who had similar inclinations. We auditioned many people who didn't work out, and eventually I called a young [16 years old!] drummer I had played with previously in a cover band. The drummer, Fenner Castner, worked out so wonderfully that Steve decided to move over to keyboards [he'd nearly completed a Music / Composition degree at the University of Louisville, so he was already a good keyboard player]. Fenner soon talked us into trying out a guitarist/schoolmate [this guy was only 15!] named Artie Bratton, and the line-up was complete. In the meantime, Steve was also a record distributor and the head of ZNR. So he was able to convince us that it was possible to release our own record and not depend on pleasing a record label-an amazing concept to me at the time! So we finished writing FTV1, recorded and released it, and the rest is history. Not long after releasing FTV1, Steve decided to give up playing music, as getting married, having kids, working another job as well as running ZNR was too much time & effort. So I ended up more or less "inheriting" the group.

VM: By the way, why have you decided to name a US band French TV?

MS: It was a dumb name that Steve found appealing. We had already recorded the 1st album, and still needed a name for the project,. Steve saw "French TV" listed as the source for a list of bootleg videos in a catalogue and thought it looked neat. I got sick of pushing for MY choice of names [Strategic Air Command], so reluctantly agreed. I've never been fond of it, but realize it's too late in the game to change it. But everyone else I talk to LIKE it! I don't understand it at all....

VM: I know the first two French TV albums were released only on LP. What labels issued these albums then?

MS: We did them both ourselves. They were released on Steve's labels 1 on Lost Records and the second on Y Records [when we found out there already was a label called LOST].

VM: There was a long pause in between releases of the French TV second (1987) and third (1994) albums. Why? Were you involved in any other musical projects at the time?

MS: As I couldn't find people willing to play my own compositions from FTV after the 1st lp came out, I started a trio with drummers Greg McNary and later Jeff King & sax/clarinetist Clancy Dixon for about a year called The Friendly Enzymes [named after one of the tunes on FTV2] for about a year. It was nothing but improvs; very similar to The Muffins or Art Ensemble of Chicago. I was also in a big band [7 piece] called Power Lounge; instrumental originals; nothing too tricky, but it was good and fun music. Sadly, it broke up due to too many power struggles between the 3 founders-too bad! As for the delay between FTV2 & 3, it was basically down to Steve Roberts. FTV3 was actually finished in 1990, but Steve kept having financial problems and had to constantly delay releasing it on his ZNR label. Finally, I decided I had had enough and released it myself on my own label, Pretentious Dinosaur Records in 1994.

VM: It's really great to know that since the middle of the 1990s and up to now the activity of French TV has remained stable. Is it a result of the band's creative freedom, which in turn made it possible for you since 1994 to release the French TV albums on your own label "Pretentious Dinosaur"? What is your opinion on that? Also, tell me how and when the independent "Pretentious Dinosaur" label was formed?

MS: I think it's been more a matter of being around long enough to accumulate a large number of musicians willing to create & perform weird music with me, a luxury I didn't have when I began. When somebody quits, it seems there is always someone else who wants to join the fun [at least until it's no fun anymore!]. So we've been a lot more prolific these days. I have to say overall, I never feel any pressures to write more "mainstream"music, as the older I get, the less people's approval matters to me.

VM: What was a principal purpose of forming "Pretentious Dinosaur": to have a possibility to release the works of French TV (only), or were there originally more ambitious plans: such as enlarging the label by signing other bands or by distributing CDs of other performers?

MS: As mentioned before, I began Pretentious Dinosaur in 1994 because Steve Roberts kept postponing our 3rd cd. I had also asked 2-3 other labels, but either they couldn't do it or I would have seen hardly any money, so doing it myself seemed like the best plan. I'm glad I chose this option, as I've learned so much about distributorship, and also enjoy the sense of being accountable to no one. Up until recently, there was no way I could release anything by other people, as I had to go in debt every time I put out another French TV album. Fortunatly, things have progressed to the point where our recording & releasing cds are making money now, so I have recently given thought to doing non-FTV music projects. Our keyboardist John Robinson will be doing a solo album on Pretentious Dinosaur in the near future-probably in the Spring of next year featuring myself and original FTV drummer Fenner Castner [ I'm looking froward to working with Fenner again!].

VM: While the best, in my view, French TV albums were released in the 1990s (and the band's so far latest album I regard as their creative peak), all of them are musically, very different from one another. You know well that the majority of reviewers of the French TV music try to squeeze it down into the frames of widely known sub-genres and manifestations of Progressive (like Canterbury, for example), as well as to compare your band to some others. I've found the music of French TV not only distinctly original, but also in many ways innovative, straight after I've listened to it. And with each new French TV album I understand that you find yourself in an endless search for new ways to express your musical talents. And you? Would you agree that your music is influenced by particular performers or it was, originally, just inspired by some musical works?

MS: In a sense, I'm lucky in that respect, because I compose from a somewhat unorthodox instrument [the bass]. As a result, this allows the music to go in virtually any direction; it's not as "fixed" as if I used a chordal-based instrument such as keys or guitar. The other factor is that most of the musicians I've worked with in the past had very little knowledge of either the history or the current state of progressive rock, or if they did [such as guitarist Dean Zigoris], they consider most of it old, or dated, or "corny", and are interested in more current and less mainstream musical styles such as Eastern European, Asian, North African, techno, minimalism, or producers such as Bill Laswell or John Zorn. As a result of this, the players I use are somewhat more individualist in both their playing and composing, which I encourage as much as possible. There is also the matter of [in my case] despite having a good working knowledge of progressive rock, never wanting to sound too much like any one band in particular, no matter how much I like them. Another factor is that the longer a composer is around, the more conscious they are about a new composition being too similar to something they've written in the past. Speaking for myself, I get uncomfortable when I notice this happening, and immediately look for ways to "disguise" this, or throw it away and start over. The question of influence & inspiration is a tricky question. I don't think I have consciously tried to sound like other people, but it's not really for me to say, it's up to the listener to decide that. Judging from the reviews, we must be doing something original, as they can't seem to agree on who we sound like! If anything, what I've taken from all the progressive music I've heard is the idea that anything is possible in a composition. ANYTHING.

VM: There are currently about a dozen bands and performers whose music fits neither any of the four 'chief' progressive genres (Art-Rock, Prog-Metal, Jazz-Fusion and RIO) nor any 'particular' manifestations (like the mentioned Canterbury). So I assume all these 'indescribable' bands-innovators, including FTV, form another, fifth 'chief' genre of Prog, which I called the Fifth Element (this way, it was 'found' at least in Progressive). I hope you have nothing against it. Or maybe you consider French TV a band from one of the officially recognized camps of Progressive Rock?

MS: I am quite proud of not being so easily pigeon-holed into any of progressive music's sub-categories. One reason for our being this way is that I tend to focus more on the song at hand-it is generally a series of problems that need to be solved: Does this section seem too long? Does it need a solo, and if so, what instrument? What sort of feeling? Why can't the drummer make this transition into the next part? Should it be changed and made easier? Does the next section need to be radically different from the previous part, or should we try another slight variation? How does it end? I'm too busy worrying about these problems to think about whether the song remains true to what has been heard before by others, or what camp we fall in. It's odd; we really get categorized in the "Canterbury" camp a lot, but personally, I don't see it; I think the reviewers are just being lazy. We've only written maybe 2-3 songs that I can see as sounding like that, but the rest would seem to invalidate that. I tend to like music with a lot of variations and that hopefully sounds as if it takes me on a journey somewhere, so this is reflected in what I write. However, this has also been a drawback to our career. I don't see ourselves as being unlikable to anyone who prefers music to have the same characteristics I prefer, so I tend to think progressive fans listen as I do. But as time goes on and I try to get our music reviewed in more places, I see reviewers actually WARNING their readers that we're just too strange for them to like! This attitude SHOCKS me: I thought progressive listeners like progressive music! To me, "weird & strange" means the Starland Vocal Band, or ABBA!

VM: Progressive Rock is believed to have been not too rich in strong, serious and original progressive performers in the 1980s, but about a year ago I stopped regarding that decade as Progressive's 'dark years'. Apart from the excellent French TV (it's enough to have a look into the Gibraltar EPR and each of the Top sections on ProgressoR to know the excellent attitude of different musical critics towards the band) and lots of truly Prog-Metal bands, there were too many other hallmarks of Progressive in the 1980s (Swedes Isildurs Bane, Americans Djam Karet, French Minimum Vital, many Russian, Japanese, Chechoslovak bands, among others) to consider that decade dark regarding the international Progressive Rock movement. ItaАЩs another matter that most Western major labels by the end of the 1970s lost interest in bands that put out non-commercial music. So, what are your thoughts on the so called Progressive's 'dark decade'?

MS: It's interesting, one never gets a clear understanding of history until 10-15 or so years later. We were sort of in the middle of it as it was happening, so we didn't really have a clue of what was happening til years later. All I knew was that progressive music wasn't as popular as it was in the '70s, but since I wasn't producing music in the '70s, I didn't really feel like I was suddenly having to struggle after having it easy for a long time. So I was more concerned about getting compositions out of my system, and experimenting with what makes a good musical arrangement, and how to run a band and keep everyone happy, and how to book shows, how to help a live audience enjoy a confusing piece of music, and make equipment do what it's supposed to, and how to raise a family as a musician without them thinking you're nuts....so personally speaking, there was too much learning involved to let the musical climate affect my life and viewpoint.

As a listener, I was VERY lucky-even though you couldn't really find newer progressive music from the '80s in local record stores, I was able to go to Steve Robert's house where he kept his ZNR stock and have him introduce me to so many bands. Wayside Music's catalogues were [and still are!] also very helpful too. So I didn't really perceive that there weren't as many good bands as in the '70s; it still seemed as tho progressive music was vibrant and flourishing, even tho if one read Rolling Stone or any other magazine, one would think it ceased to exist. Kenso, Pekka Pohjola, Samlas, Fred Frith's solo work, Etron Fou, Cartoon, However, UZ, the Muffins, [I know, some of these bands work was from the '70s, but I didn't discover them til later], even King Crimson was doing vital work in the '80s. So I never really considered it a bad decade for progressive music. It's also been a treat discovering the Russian and Baltic progressive cds coming out recently that originally came out in the '80s-more evidence it wasn't so bad!

VM: Finally,when should the French TV fans (including me) expect to hear the band's new studio album? Generally, what are your future plans concerning the band (French TV) and the label ("Pretentious Dinosaur") as well?

MS: All is on schedule for FTV7 "The Case Against Art" to be out by around Christmas / New Years. 2 songs completely finished & mixed, with 3 more to go. As mentioned before, our Louisville keyboardist John Robinson has written a solo album; we will begin working on it very soon, and if it's organized correctly, should be finished in the Spring of 2002. Also, I am on 4 tracks on the new TRAP release, [the band fronted by ex-drummer for Cartoon & PFS, Gary Parra. Members also include Warren Dale and Chris Smith who play a large role in FTV7]. This cd [titled "INSURRECTION"] is finished, but there hasn't been any agreement on what label to release it on-Gary wants Musea's GAZUL to release it, and Warren & Chris prefer to do it themselves. So we'll see...In the meantime, I have a cd's worth of newer songs I am finessing into solid compositions. I plan to have Warren & Chris help out again, but I'm not sure who will be on drums, as current FTV drummer Chris Vincent wants to take a few months off from music, and I'm not ready to wait! At the moment, I have too many possible drummers in mind to make a decision just yet. I wish I could make real plans or directions for French TV, but I'm mostly at the mercy of whoever is in the band at the time-pretty frustrating!

VM: Many thanks for doing the interview, Mike. I wish that you carry on making us fans happy with your wonderful music for years to come.

P.S.: Read on ProgressoR the reviews on all (except the second one, released on CD by "Mellow") French TV studio albums (there are no compilations among them):

The "French TV" (FTV-I-1984) detailed review:
>http://www.progressor.net/review/french_tv_1984.html
The "Virtue In Futility" (FTV-III-1994) detailed review:
>http://www.progressor.net/review/french_tv_1994.html
The "Intestinal Fortitude" (FTV-IV-1995) short review:
>http://www.progressor.net/review/f.html#french_tv_1995
"The Violence of Amateurs" (FTV-VI-1999) detailed review:
>http://www.progressor.net/review/french_tv_1999.html

There is also the FTV-V CD (Live, compiled of the tracks that feature the band's first four studio albums) in the band's discography. Regarding this album, I can say that FTV on-stage sound as outstanding as in a studio, if not even better in some ways.

October 31, 2000
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