Interview with MASTERMIND's Bill Berends
by Tommy â€œHashmanâ€ Hash
They started life as an instrumental progressive rock band and have reinvented themselves release after release. Brothers Bill and Rich Berends (guitar and drums, respectively) have been going at this since 1986, originally forming with bassist Phil Antolino, and in a time dominated by the glossy styles of 80’s music, the band took a musical approach to do play an ELP style of progressive rock, and in the era of the guitar shredder, it was direction that fit in the mold with virtuoso musicianship as the band caught the attention of Shrapnel’s Mike Varney, who did a write up on them in Guitar Player Magazine. After receiving acclaim in press and word of mouth, Mastermind was the first band to ink a deal with the then new Magna Carta label.
After years of lineup changes within the band, as the Barends Brothers remain at the core, not to mention several record label deals and stylistic changes that go on with any transformation over time, Mastermind has released their latest album Insomnia with lead vocalist Tracy McShane. The record is their first full-length in several years (save for the 2005 Broken EP) and sees the band going into a more straightforward prog-rock/metal hybrid direction, where like bands such as Shadow Gallery & Transatlantic, there is something here for both the prog and metal crowd. As the album purveys with epic hard driving tracks “Break Me Down,” “Piggy World,” & “Nietzsche” and more eased down tunes “Last Cigarette” & “No Answer,” it’s clear that the hard rock mantra is put at the forefront, for a more in-your-face approach rather than keeping the eye on the prize for a experimental & symphonic domination, although of course, those elements are in there, keeping the album technical and complex at times. Guitarist Bill Berends speaks about the band’s new album and all the things that have brought them up to this point.“I didn’t set out intentionally to do anything specific with this record,” begins Berends, “it just developed naturally. In our history we tend to follow something upbeat or aggressive with something slower paced, as “Tragic Symphony” followed “Brainstorm” for example. Our Angels of the Apocalypse album was fast and aggressive, so I didn’t want to repeat that. It is true to a degree I wanted to focus more on songs than solos, we’ve made quite a few albums of over the top soloing so if people don’t realize by now that’s a part of what we do, they aren’t paying attention. When we’ve played the Insomnia material live, it’s no problem to insert extended solos if the mood strikes us, that’s what makes live shows interesting. What I really set out to do is just make a pleasing listening experience. So many bands try too hard to be “more progressive” or out-do themselves technically, as if music were sports or some kind of competition, especially in prog-metal. I am aware that in the marketplace it’s a competition for dollars and attention, but at home when you put on the stereo, none of that matters, so I just wanted to make a good listen. Just enough soloing to spice things up, but it’s more about the overall vibe and groove and how it makes you feel. I wanted to make a record you could play in mixed company without having to explain “this is prog you see…” One review implied we were trying to make a commercial record when in fact, if I wanted to do something commercial we would have been better off repeating our earlier work. Or “please make another Brainstorm” as one label put it. Perhaps one day, but that wasn’t what I wanted to do at the time. I also wanted to try a few more modern sounding things with some tuned down guitars and so on. Every album we make is something of an experiment and we’re always trying new things.”
Making this album a more rock oriented record is the presence of singer Tracy McShane, who replaced singer Lisa Bouchelle – she sings out in the Lana Lane/Ann Wilson rock and roll style, most who have heard the Broken EP will be familiar with her, as that release was a precursor to this album, “After we released Angels of the Apocalypse and did some shows to support it, it became clear our then-vocalist Lisa Bouchelle was more interested in her solo career – which was fine, I never expected her to be around forever – so I decided to replace her and when I met Tracy through some friends, she seemed like a natural choice,” elaborates Berends, “Primarily because we had this album with a female voice and now people expected to hear female vocals when we performed. I view each Mastermind album as something like a different symphony I am writing, so it is the music that matters more than the personalities and I try to evolve and write different works, not re-write the same symphony over and over. However, from a strictly commercial sense I guess that isn’t always the best plan… as Jens is fond of saying “people always want the same soap in the soap box” which I suppose is true, there are many examples of that. I, on the other hand think, well I did a drama, now maybe it’s time to do a romantic comedy or a science fiction work for example, much like a movie director might direct several different types of movies. The same sensibilities and aesthetic values I’ve always had guide the creation process, but the final outcome is something new in the soap box quite often.”
With so many releases under the band’s belt, each standing out on it’s own, one must ask how the motions have changed over the years, “I think it might be better to ask an outside observer,” states Berends on how he feels the band has evolved, “Internally, a lot of it is the same as when we started out. It’s still me and my brother Rich trying to make music we would like to hear and is enjoyable to perform. I know personally I have evolved musically over time though. With the internet I have been overloaded by so much music and the competition effect as I mentioned… trying to be ‘more’ whatever. How many interviews have you read where a band says “our new album is darker sounding”? Dozens if not hundreds. Or it’s “more progressive”… with so many bands being ‘more’… more dark, more progressive, more fast, more complex, more whatever, I have felt a growing need to strip things down and be ‘less’.
Strip away the needlessly complex, the over production, the computer enhanced recording, and get closer to the heart so to speak… the only thing ‘more’ I want to be is more direct. I can’t say whether or not Insomnia totally succeeded in that regard, but it is a step in that direction. It doesn’t matter how complex or difficult or technical something is if you feel nothing from it. When you are younger you are easily impressed by something flashy and complicated and think ‘ooo that’s cool’… but cool only goes so far and starts to wear thin after you’ve seen it a million times. At the end of the day, music is about conveying feelings… emotions. There is craft involved of course, but at the end of the album, do you feel anything different than when it started? Who knows… like Zappa said, talking about music is like dancing about architecture. I can’t always put it into words how I have evolved musically, but I do feel like Insomnia is a mature work and it may take someone time and patience to fully appreciate it. Mastermind is “not love at first sight” as one fan put it, but it definitely grows on you. The only one I am really trying to please is myself and some people ‘get it’ and others just think.. ‘this isn’t extreme sports.'”
The music and the lyrics have a quite a bit of depth as most music in the thinking man’s rock genre – so what ‘masterminds’ the Mastermind? ” Love, anguish, desire, fear, loneliness, optimism, hopelessness, anger, happiness, a sunny day…” hints the guitarist, the human experience basically. These things inspire music in me. It’s innate. Certain sounds evoke certain feelings in me much like everyone else, and the inverse is equally true, feelings evoke music. Otherwise it’s just entertainment and may as well be a dog balancing a ball on the end of his nose. That is not why I make music. Everything in our known universe has some vibration to it, from the resonant frequency of Jupiter down to a single atom. In string theory matter itself is a manifestation of vibration, so I feel when I am making vibrations – music – I am reaching out and making contact with The Universe, with others, with God.. it is quite Zen in that regard and is really what keeps me going. (As with lyrics, same goes for them as the musical inspiration), it’s just how I was feeling at that particular time. Since I primarily write music, I try to write lyrics after the fact that reinforce the feeling that I hope the music is getting across. In the case of Insomnia I also took some ideas of Tracy’s and molded them to fit the music, to fit her, since I knew she would be singing it. I felt it had to identify with her personality to some degree. Some of the lyrics are autobiographical, some observational, but I prefer not to pin it down to anything specific and let the listener interpret them through the lens of their own reality.”
Not only does Mastermind have the experience for the musical chops, they also put a great deal of effort into the recording process, “Basically the same as every Mastermind album. I write a bunch of tunes and select the ones that seem coherent to me, from whatever perspective, then Rich and I lay down the basic tracks and embellish them from there adding lyrics, vocals, solos. Sometimes I know exactly what I may want to do on a particular piece of music, other times there is some experimentation involved, trial and error, trying to capture the feeling I want the music to give. On other occasions some things are just happy accidents and they stay. I suppose the biggest difference between this album and all our other albums is, this is the first Mastermind album to be recorded 100% with computers. Everything up through “Angels” was recorded on analog tape, though Angels and Excelsior! were mixed to DAT. Insomnia was a PC production from top to bottom. And, like Angels and Excelsior!, Jens recorded with us, laying his parts down in my studio with my directing or producing his parts. I don’t tell him exactly what to play, I mean it in a more general sense like ‘here you are angry’ or ‘this is remorseful’ and so on, just trying to get him to understand where the intent coming from. A lot of people ask if he emails his parts and the answer is no, we work together in the same room. I couldn’t do it any other way I don’t think. I wouldn’t want to anyway.”
Berends does remain active in other projects, such as making music as a solo artist as he gives details, ” I have recorded a “Bill Berends” solo album of instrumental guitar music which I finished up just recently That’s really where my head was going musically when we got an offer from Lion Music which sort of snapped me back into Mastermind mode. Getting back in touch with just the guitar and an amp. No firm release plans for that yet, but it is coming. Although it’s been ten years since Mastermind released a new studio album, it isn’t like it took ten years to record it.. it just took that long for the world to be ready for it. And, we started laying down new tracks, Rich and I, that could be the basis for a new Mastermind album, so there is always something in the works. I have several hours of unreleased and unrecorded music written. Also, Rich and I have a side project we call “The Berends Brothers Band” which is basically a bluesy hard rock jam band that plays covers in bars for fun and a little profit. We don’t play top 40 covers or even stuff most people have even heard.. we just play stuff we like from over the years. It’s good fun and keeps us playing whether there is a record deal or a tour or not. Playing music is what I live for and I’m sure Rich feels pretty much the same way. We’ll always be out playing somewhere.”
There are hopes to play some live dates, but at this time, nothing is in stone for a tour, “We would love to of course,” says Berends, “but the economics of it aren’t very promising at this time. I guess much of that depends on if the album sells well enough, what kind of buzz we can get going, and what lucky breaks might fall our way. If it were feasible, we’d be doing it. We are planning on some domestic shows this summer in the east coast region of the States where we live. Like I said, we’ll always be out playing somewhere. Life in the studio cave gives me cabin fever big time, I’d much rather be out playing live, interacting with people… so anyone reading who may be interested in helping us out, please get in touch.”
The band has been previously signed to both Inside Out and Cyclops Records, seeing different sides of the progressive rock underground; the band has signed with Lion Music for the release of Insomnia after looking into more independent ways of getting music out there in the age of the Internet, It’s been an interesting journey as Berends goes into great detail, “I could write a book about this (business) stuff, but will try and be brief. Basically, at the end of the business day, no matter what someone’s reason may have been for getting involved with the music biz, it is a business and business is all about money. When we started getting noticed in the mid 90’s there was a growing prog-rock scene, a rediscovery or rebirth of some sort. We were one of the very first bands out there doing it then – in fact Magna Carta records was formed to release Mastermind (a whole other story) – and this rebirth flourished briefly in the 90’s, but the people who jumped in on the business end soon found out there wasn’t a large enough market to really sustain it, so since then quite a few of those people – labels, festivals, bands, etc – ceased to be. Also during that time there was a cross-pollenization of progressive rock and metal and the metal side of it kind of became dominant, so the bands that learned towards metal flourished more. Then add to that the broadband revolution with download music everywhere, making money from CD’s became more and more difficult… Labels cut their rosters, devoted what little resources they had to fewer acts, and developing bands were more or less left to fend for themselves.
Artist development and tour support? Forget about it. In retrospect Inside Out may have been the worst thing that ever happened to us because they didn’t understand the band or make us any kind of priority. If you look on their website for example, they haven’t even updated our web link even though it’s been 10 years and I asked them to change it maybe a hundred times… it was difficult and frustrating to say the least. I had pretty much given up at that point when my friend Dennis Leeflang (Bumblefoot, Sun Caged) suggested I contact Lasse (Mattsson) at Lion, saying he had a good experience with them since it is run by an actual musician, so I did and here we are. I have learned I am much better off with a label of some reputation for a variety of reasons, unless you are prepared to devote the bulk of your time and energy to self-promotion which is something I am not real comfortable with. We released a couple discs on our own and I knew then I didn’t want to be a ‘record label.’ I do make an effort to promote the band of course, and I interact with fans all the time, but I am not the kind of person that goes jumping up and down in public yelling “pay attention to me me ME!!” all the time which is really what it takes.
I’d rather be making music than be the carnival barker. Anyway to make a long story short, we’re very pleased with Lion Music so far, they seem to be making an effort to promote the record and they are very responsive. I don’t have to wait a month to get some sort of reply. With Inside Out quite often I got no response at all. It’s a shitty business, especially if you aren’t the most in-vogue thing in the world. It requires a lot of determination, self-promotion, and most of all, luck it would seem.”
Mastermind will remain focused on promoting Insomnia, as their belief in the music will ensure more tunes to come as Berends concludes, “I know from all the people that have heard this music over the years that if it could reach a broad enough audience it would do very well. After that, only time will tell. The only thing I can assure you and your readers is that I will continue to make music in one fashion or another. I would perish without it.”
Copyright & Publishing: 2009 Tommy Hash for Ytsejam.com