In late-1994, following a successful performance at the first "Progscape" festival in Towson, Maryland, and hard on the heels of the Japanese release of their third album Tragic Symphony, two thirds of Mastermind, brothers Bill and Rich Berends sat down with Exposé to candidly discuss the band's past, present and hopes for the future.
by Peter Thelen, Published 1995-03-01
So how did the gig at ProgScape go?
RB: Playing was the best part, but it always is. The theater itself was fun to play in and the audience knew why they were there, a nice change from clubs.
BB: It was OK. It was our first time on stage in a year and a half and our first time out with Phil in about four years... playing mostly new material to boot. We played everything off the new album for the first time live anywhere, so it went OK. A few rough spots, but nothing a few more gigs won't cure. I think we got our point across.
Any high points, low points, or stories you can tell ? Do you think you connected with the audience there?
BB: Well, by the time the other bands got done fooling around in their soundcheck, we didn't get a proper soundcheck at all! They call us up and by then the hall is full and we're doing a line check... the sound company forgot the direct line from my synthesizers, they hadn't put a mic on the second kick drum — we're the only band that used a double kick drum kit. Come ON you guys! All right, they get it working, everybody is ready but we hadn't done any monitor check, nothing. The audience is staring and I didn't want to be the one to hold up the show, it was getting late already, so we started. Right away I realize the only thing in my monitor was the right kick drum "ba-bap-bap, ba-bap-bap"... nightmare. OK, turn up the guitar a little, not bad, but where are the vocals? Shit. I look over at the monitor guy and he's sleeping! His fucking head is down in his hands not paying attention at all! Nightmare! I finally got his attention around the fourth song and then he fucked it up even worse, I should have let him sleep! But I think we connected with the audience very well — the crowd really went bonkers! Especially for the older stuff they know, like "Brainstorm" and "William Tell"... standing ovations. And the new stuff was very well received too, so that really made me happy.
How about you, Rich?
RB: For me, finally getting to meet face to face people we've dealt with or corresponded with along the way was a high point. The long unnecessary production delays were definitely the low points. It was nine hours of music crammed into 13 hours. After the dinner break and never ending sound check, it seemed like a different day than when I went in. As for the audience, the immediate applause after every piece, standing ovations and encore tells me that we connected. I'd like to thank Chris Lamka and everybody who attended for that.
How about the show in general? One thing I keep hearing is that there were too many bands for one night. What's your take on that?
RB: Six bands playing full concert sets back to back is a lot no matter how you look at it. It could be really cool, but dragging out the down time on top of the distance many people traveled made a lot of people irritable. A little stronger stage management — or any stage management, and possibly a Saturday instead of Sunday would improve any future ProgScape.
BB: No, I don't think there were too many bands. It was very disorganized from a staging point of view so things got backed up, but with a good stage manager the downtime between acts could have been cut in half at least. There was no real stage manager at ProgScape. I've worked a lot of rock shows that had fast, efficient stage changes with no need for extensive sound checks, but you need an experienced person calling the shots, a rock-n-roll pro. It was a learning experience for everyone involved with putting on the show and Chris Lamka and company are music enthusiasts, not professional promoters, so I give them a lot of credit. Next year will be better.
On to your new album. It's out in Japan, but not in the states yet. Do you expect to have a label here soon? What happened between you and your old label (ZNR)?
BB: The Japanese deal went down faster than I expected. Boom! They wanted it, they made an offer I couldn't refuse, faxed a contract and that was it, done. The whole thing took less than two weeks, and two months later the disc was out! We still have a relationship with ZNR, in fact the Brainstorm album was just repressed, but ZNR is a small outfit and we all feel we're ready to move on. Things look promising and I expect we'll know what's going on in January, but I'm patient and I think this could be our breakthrough album if it's handled properly. I hope to have it out here in the first quarter of '95, April at the latest.
RB: Many bands release their CDs in Japan before anywhere else. I'm looking forward to a North American release of Tragic Symphony.
You're pretty happy with the new album? What was the primary aim this time out?
RB: Tragic Symphony sounds great. The goal was to make a record that surpasses the one before it, and I think you can really see the band's growth on this one. Bill's composition is very powerful.
BB: I think it comes across pretty well. The primary aim was to not repeat our previous efforts. I wanted to do something a little more deliberate, paced. Broader strokes might be a good way of putting it. I also wanted to add some more dynamics to our live show, so this album was a good place to do that... you can't do two hours of Brainstorm, it wears people out! The music itself evolved pretty naturally, I was immersing myself in Mahler and Shostakovich while my life was falling apart around me! Things in my personal situation have improved dramatically since then, but this album is an honest effort, a valid and mature work I think, and a reflection of the things I was going through at the time.
Seems like this time you're using a bit less of the guitar-as-synth controller and more of the raw power-guitar. A conscious effort here?
BB: There's actually quite a bit of synthesizer on this album, all the way through it fact! But I wanted to be a bit more dynamic and the acoustic guitars worked well to that effect. We try to keep a certain raw power in our sound, a primitive aspect that has a little bit of danger to it like it just might go out of control somewhere along the line. I like that, I want to feel it in my balls as well as my brain. The one unique thing on Tragic Symphony is "All the King's Horses" is the first track we've ever recorded that doesn't have any electric guitar in it.
RB: I thought Brainstorm was the more raw guitar oriented record! If you really listen to Tragic Symphony I think you'll hear a lot of very powerful synth on top of that guitar, and "The Power and the Passion" is based on a synth riff. Over all I think it's pure Mastermind.
Back to the beginning. How did Mastermind come about? Have you two always played together? Where did the name come from?
BB: It's always been me and Richard and somebody else. We've played together our whole lives practically.
RB: Mastermind came about as a regrouping of the ideal we have always had. Bill and I have always played this type of music together, ever since I was fourteen. I've played in different bands along the way, but it always comes back to this. Tank and Voyager One were our two main predecessors. Phil played in Voyager One. I'll let Bill tell you where the name Mastermind came from.
BB: It's no big deal — we were stuck for a name when we decided to release our first recording so friend of ours said, "So who's the mastermind behind all this, then?" I said I was and it stuck.
Do you see the trio as preferable to a larger lineup? Randy California once said something to the effect of "It's less people to argue about ideas with, therefore the creative process is more streamlined." Do you agree with that? Has Mastermind ever been more than three guys?
BB: That's a great way of putting it! And I like Randy California too, in fact Spirit was one of my favorite bands when I was growing up. We were even considering recording "Mechanical World" from the first Spirit album somewhere along the line. But back to trios, we've always loved trios starting with Cream, Hendrix, West, Bruce & Laing, ELP... it takes more instrumental bravado to keep things going and there's more room to jam, plus you have to work your ass off all the time to keep it solid and full. You only need three legs to hold up a table! Mastermind has never been more than three people, but I've had situations with five people or more and I just don't like it, it's too crowded, too many cooks so to speak. We need room to do what we do and a trio is perfect for that.
RB: The power trio has always been my favorite because everybody has to push their chops to the limit to cover or imply all of the parts nobody else is playing. That makes for an exciting band. Less people to manage definitely streamlines the whole process. Although a full orchestral accompaniment would be nice, I think the core of the band will always be a trio.
What do you listen to when you're not making music yourself? How much do these artists influence the music you make now, and in what way?
RB: When I need a little inspiration or need to remember why I got in to all of this, I still go back and listen to Cream and Mahavishnu Orchestra. Ginger Baker's sense of timing together with Jack Bruce is amazing and the improvisation of both of these bands is almost a lost art. This is the music I grew up on.
How about yourself, Bill?
BB: Sheez, at this point in my life I'd have to say Shostakovich's string quartets 11 and 15... these pieces of music move me on a deeper plane than probably anything I've ever heard in my life... they move my very soul. The man's sadness was profound and his genius of harmony and rhythm just incredible. Mahler's Ninth and Tenth Symphonies, especially the first movement of each work. The last movement of his Third Symphony and "Der Abschied" from Das Lied von der Erde. Bruckner's Ninth of course. There you can hear the basis for the Tragic Symphony theme which was also quoted by Mahler in his Tenth Symphony, sometimes called the "Alma" theme for his (Mahler's) wife Alma who had betrayed him.
What about rock?
BB: I don't listen to much rock anymore. Occasionally I'll play 'Black Moon' real loud, or some Metallica. I was cranking David Sancious' Forest of Feelings a few days back. This is an unbelievable piece of music which to me is really great progressive rock as I think of progressive rock. I suppose it could be called fusion, but it's heavy and very structured. It's definitely rock. Of course I think of early Mahavishnu Orchestra as rock too. Loud music played through Marshall amps and loud drums on big stages. This was rock music at its very peak!
If you had to pick a handful of albums (or so) to take to the grave with you, what would they be?
BB: To the grave. Hmmm. Mahler's Ninth. ELP Trilogy and Brain Salad Surgery, Jack Bruce Out of the Storm, Bo Hansson's Lord of the Rings, Cream Disraeli Gears and Goodbye... What else? Mahavishnu's Inner Mounting Flame, Copland's "Appalachian Spring," the Beethoven Violin Concerto Opus 61, Bach's solo cello suites, Dowland's "Lachrimae," Ginastera's "Variaciones Concertantes." And of course you'd have to take Beethoven's Ninth to the grave with you to open heaven's gates when you got to the other side!
How does the state of the music industry look from your perspective, and specifically what do you see for the future of progressive rock? How will Mastermind fit into that future?
RB: The industry is expanding for us. I think overall, record companies should take more risks in order to generate more interest in music. Let's not be brainwashed by too much media and let's stop listening with our eyes. Progressive rock is like a monster waking from a long sleep, with the right support and management it could be more glorious than ever. Mastermind will be a force to contend with for a long time to come.
BB: It seems to be a little better than it was five years ago. At least now some people will talk to me for a few minutes after they hear the word progressive! But one moron at a major affiliated label in NYC told me I should start listening to Green Day! Give me a fucking break! Green Day... I'm 40 fucking years old and I love interesting and accomplished music, I don't care about hearing pseudo-teenage angst no matter how well it's done. The industry is still a pathetic short-attention-span market-driven self-aggrandizing juggernaut that isn't about art or serious expression at all and, most of the real sales are made by television! I resent the fact that I can't go to a record store or get a CBS CD Club Catalog and find even one rock album that I really want to purchase! That sucks!
I hear ya. Seems like most of it is trendy nonsense aimed squarely at a market of insecure teenagers. Don't get me started on this! You'll see most of this crap in bargain bins and cluttering up the used stores a year from now... There is some good stuff though, don't you think?
BB: I think Dream Theater is a move in the right direction, and Echolyn hopefully can reach towards that same level... but there needs to be about five or six more really good bands, and there isn't! I've heard the music industry described as a bunch of dogs circling around sniffing each other's asshole. One of them will manage to shit out a turd that sells a million units, so they all try and shit out a turd just like it, and that's how it works. Epic said, "Go out and get us a Dream Theater," and Echolyn was the result. Great! Hopefully a few more progressive bands can get in this way. But some really bad bands get signed this way because the people that have the power to make these decisions usually aren't music people, they're lawyers and marketing people with connections.
So what's your personal experience been with these dogs?
BB: I've been talking to a lot of people about Mastermind and there's definitely some strong interest, I mean come on, we've sold thousands of CD's through ZNR and now with Zero, which has major distribution with Toshiba-EMI. In fact the first pressing in Japan was gone in less than a month! And ZNR has just repressed Brainstorm again, so people are buying this stuff. Plus, we're a real live band that's prepared to go out and support our album on stage, so why not? There are literally hundreds of labels in the USA and in Europe and they each have their own agenda, so I'm feeling my way very carefully through a selected few. Most of these guys want a big deal world wide recording contract that could lock you up forever with no guaranteed results and I won't sign that kind of deal unless they're offering a tremendous amount of money for it up front, which they're not.
It's frightening, like selling yourself into slavery. It seems like in all these contracts the band is obligated to fulfill it's part, but the label can drop you just like that with total impunity. Hell, I've even known of cases where a band couldn't use their name anymore because the rights to it were part of the contract.
BB: Sure, then they want your publishing rights and your merchandising rights too. Then they want a creative input and control over the artwork and packaging... there's a good one, the artwork. As far as the artwork is concerned I painted all three Mastermind covers, and in my mind they represent the music as I see it, especially Tragic Symphony. This is very important to me and is one of the sticking points I've had with American label types. In Japan, Zero used my art and album design and it looks great! For me that is a victory over the meddling fingers of the music industry. ZNR always let me do what I wanted to also, but they don't have the distribution. So I'm prepared to wait until I get a deal that I feel comfortable with, and if I don't find that, then I'll press it my own damn self with the money we make from Japan!
Related artist(s): Mastermind
Celebrate 10 Years of Fruits de Mer – As a special celebration for a decade of cool vinyl releases, our friends at Fruits de Mer records have prepared a limited edition reissue of an album by the first band ever to appear on the label: Schizo Fun Addict. The band is known for unusual release strag » Read more
Mega Dodo Presents New Charity Album – Our friends at Mega Dodo have put together a lovely compilation of their artists performing new arrangements of nursery rhymes, and all the profits from sales of the album will benefit Save the Children. It features a number of artists we've covered. » Read more
Phil Miller RIP – Sad word reaches us today of the passing of another of the great musicians of the Canterbury Scene — guitarist Phil Miller. His distinctive sound added greatly to Matching Mole, Hatfield and the North, and National Health, and he also contributed to albums by Caravan, Dave Stewart & Barbara Gaskin, and many others. He was 68. » Read more
Moonjune to Distribute Tony Levin's Back Catalog – It has been announced that Moonjune will now handle distribution for Tony Levin's catalog of releases. These great albums will now be a bit easier to get hold of, so check out the site and see what you're missing. The veteran of King Crimson and Stick Men worked with a host of great players on these albums, and we've reviewed most of them over the course of the years. » Read more
Bandcamp Shines Light on Niches We Like – Bandcamp has developed into one of the best places to discover new music, and even a lot of old music is showing up there. In addition, their staff has been producing periodic articles spotlighting some interesting stylistic areas. On 20 September, they published one called "The New Face of Prog Rock" which bears checking out. » Read more