Steven McCabe (Elegant Simplicity) - interview,
Steven McCabe and I were having a conversation recently about his latest album, and I felt that after nearly 25 years we really ought to sit down properly and do an interview, as for some reason it had never happened! I first came across Elegant Simplicity back in 1996 and reviewed both ‘Natural Instinct’ and a sampler album in Feedback #33. Both of these albums came to me as cassettes, and over the years I have become quite a fan. I think I have reviewed something like 15 of his albums, but still haven’t got to the first 7! The man has been wonderfully prolific, yet to many in the prog scene he is somewhat unknown even though he has produced some wonderful music and has one of the best websites around. So, I guess the question has to be….
Kev Rowland: Who, what or when is Elegant Simplicity?
SM: Elegant Simplicity was born in Leeds, Yorkshire and is an outlet for the music in my head made real! The early cassette releases featured just me playing anything I could get my hands on. Then I met Ken Senior (via an advert in a Prog magazine, I think) and he took care of the vocals. Some of the songs on the first CD release were in the live set of a band I was in based out of Harrogate. As budgets got bigger and the equipment I used got better, I reached a position where I was able to finance my first CDs. Since then, I have been able to utilise a full band on all but my Xmas singles - I do everything on them just for fun! Now I have musicians from all over the world contributing bass, drums, flute, sax, trumpet and even vocals! All I play is the guitar and keyboards! It's an expensive way of recording, but worth it for the extra vibe that they bring. As a result of all this, Elegant Simplicity is an entirely studio-based project.
KR: Who initially inspired you to get involved in music, why, and what keeps you motivated?
SM: Up until I was maybe 17, I had no interest in music. I did learn some piano and music theory when I was very young but that was about it. Anyway, I used to do my homework with the radio on as a means of drowning out the noise from the house (I come from a very large family!). So, there I was - working away at who knows what - and I suddenly stopped doing it to listen to a song on the radio that affected me in the most profound way. The song was not some obscure thing (although to me, at the time, it was!) and was none other than Comfortably Numb! Everything about it hit me between the eyes and the guitar solos simply floored me. That was it. From that point on, I desired above all else to get a guitar and learn how to play. I was studying fine art at the time and all that went out of the window as I became obsessed with music. I still have that obsession.
I somehow got a cheap electric guitar, no amp, a Flexi-disc blues play-along record and I was off! Must have spent 18 months playing an electric guitar without an amplifier! It was havoc on the fingers, but I practised like a demon. At one point I thought I was really awesome - could play along with Black Sabbath records like there was no tomorrow. When I eventually got a decent guitar and amplifier, I was ready to join a band! I slapped adverts in all the music stores and got a call from a keyboard player based out of deepest, darkest Heckmondwike, Yorkshire, looking to get a Mahavishnu type band off the ground. I had no idea who they were (I was very much a metal music guy by then) but went for it anyway. We met and got along famously.
However, when it came to music, Malcolm was light years ahead of me. He had already been in many bands and after a few hours of rehearsal, I realised I was rubbish. I mean, I was a complete stinker. However, we decided to keep at it (nothing else to do in Yorkshire!). After about a year, I learnt more about guitar playing, harmony, melody from this guy than from anything that had come before it. I also picked up a love of progressive rock from him - he was a huge Camel / Caravan fan. We then got a drummer (Phil Sexton, from Leeds) and eventually did a good few gigs as a trio - ala Atomic Rooster - and were really rather good at it. All original songs either by me or Malcolm. Strictly no covers. Made us very popular in the working men' clubs! We made a live recording that got lost many years ago, but I still have some rehearsal recordings. They sound dreadful, recorded on cassette, but as time capsules go, a lot of fun to listen to.
The motivation for me is easy . . . as long as there is music in my head that needs to come out, I have no problem. I have always written tons of music, anyway, and I don't practice. As soon as I attempt to keep up with techniques or something, it ends up as a song and I can't let it go until it is done. This is why in the early days I was releasing two or three cassette albums in a year. Never had writer's block, I'm lucky enough to say. For me, writing a song, recording it, mixing and mastering is better than simply blasting over scales and stuff. If I want to do that, I have plenty of backing tracks for that purpose. Time is very tight, so I have learnt to maximise my productivity.
When I eventually got a job, I bought a four-track recording machine and recorded as a man possessed. So many songs were laid down. One of the songs was called Elegant Simplicity. I played it to a colleague at work, along with a selection of other tunes. Serves him right for asking what I did with my spare time! After announcing that it was a lot like Ozric Tentacles (!) he suggested that I get a band together and call it . . . . . . Elegant Simplicity. So I did! Except for the actual band part!
KR: How did you go about recording and producing your first cassette, all those years ago?
SM: My first release was not ‘Improper Advances’ but a 7-track vocal album! I had a Philips two-track karaoke machine with a built-in microphone and a guitar socket. It had two cassette decks. So, using the sound on sound recording technique (as I later found out it was called) I managed to record a full album. Just that machine, a couple of guitars, a cheap keyboard, a Vox Continental Organ and my voice. Obviously, with the best will in the world, it was never going to be studio quality, but it isn't half bad. Lots of tape noise and the vocals aren't great but composition-wise, it had some strong material on it. I used the machine to duplicate copies of the finished product and hand drew the artwork, which was then photocopied. I think I made 10 copies altogether. No idea what I did with them, but I have one in the archive!
KR: How would you describe your albums to someone who has never heard them before?
SM: Above all else, I think Melody is the key thing for me. So, if you like a good tune or two, I think my music delivers. As cliché as it sounds, I always try and create something evocative and meaningful, even if the meanings are not that clear! There are influences from folk, prog, hard rock, jazz, fusion, new age, pop. A whole melting pot. Anyway, here a few of my personal recommendations:
‘All Life is One’ is a great start as it has a couple of vocal numbers on it and some cool instrumentals. The vocalist on this release is not Ken, which surprised some folks! It has epic tracks, wonderful violin playing and a full complement of terrific musicians helping me out.
After that, I would plump for the harder hitting ‘Kicking the Olive Branch’. This is very rocky (for me!) and has loads of guitar, violin, great drums and bass etc. And it has a whopping 20-minute title track to boot.
Among the earlier releases, you can't go wrong with ‘Architect of Light’ (2014 remaster especially). This is 5 very, very long tracks with great vocals from Ken and lots of lyrical guitar and keyboard playing. Definitely one of my favourites. And if you like that, then Purity and Despair from 1998 would be a good fit, too.
And in a sort of summation of everything, the latest release ‘The Ghost of A Smile’ certainly does the trick. Again, some epics, even more varied instrumentation (check out the trumpet playing!) and lots of great melodies. The next album will have vocals on it, too, as there is an 18-minute piece all wrapped up and ready for them!
KR: Given that Ken Senior is also an active multi-instrumentalist was that something of a challenge to get him just to provide vocals?
SM: Ken is one of those guys that loves to play and he's happy to just get in and do what is asked. I had just come out of a band I was in and already had recordings of some of the vocal songs that would end up on ‘The Nature of Change’. Thinking about it now, I don't ever remember giving them to Ken to listen to! I had heard one of Ken's Evolution cassettes and liked his vocal style - reminded me of Les Holroyd of BJH. So I just asked if he would be interested in doing some singing in exchange for some recording time (I had a pretty decent studio set up by then). He agreed. So we recorded all the vocals for my album and round about the same time, he would pop in and record everything for his ‘First Signs of Life’ CD. He played everything on his own album in my studio and I assisted with the production/engineering and what-not. I had really bad tendonitis at that time, so he played acoustic guitar on one the tracks that ended up on the ‘Changing Views/Aquatorium’ release many years later.
KR: How do you explain to other musicians what you want to achieve? Do you demo all the parts yourself? Can you talk us through the process?
SM: Because I use remote musicians nowadays, from all over the globe, it is occasionally a little bit tricky to get my ideas across. So, to ensure minimum disruption and maximum output, I record complete demos with me playing everything (as best I can!). For instruments I don't play, and I want unison parts with violin or sax, I play them on the synthesiser. For where I want solos, I simply leave gaps where I want them to be. I somethings do a quick guitar or synth solo as a basic guide, though. Once that is done, complete with drums and bass, I send two mixes - one complete and one without the part I want - for them to play along with. They simply play their parts and send them back to me for approval. So, sometimes I have them play versions of what I have already played but on sax etc. Whatever I ask them to do, though, I always insist that they don't slavishly copy my guide parts. I want them to put their own spin on it while being faithful to the tune. For improvised parts, I just let them rip as they feel best!
KR: Up to ‘Too Many Goodbyes’ in 2007, you were releasing on average at least an album a year all the way back to 1992, but then there was a significant gap until 2013’s ‘Unforgiving Mirror’, why was that?
SM: The gap, AKA, the missing years!
That was due to a change in my personal circumstances. . . I became a father for the first time and moved into a tiny house, which meant there was no room for a studio and not enough time between all the domestic stuff and the very long commute to work to actually make any music!
KR: The last three albums, including the new ‘The Ghost of a Smile’, sees you working in a very different fashion to previous with many more musicians who often only appear on one album. Why the change in approach and what has it done for you?
SM: It's easy to hire additional musicians these days than when it was years ago (unless you had a big budget), but sometimes the people you used on one album are not available for the next. So it's either hang about waiting for availability or find someone else. As I like to keep producing work, it's quicker and easier to get someone else in and it has the added benefit of throwing a new spin on things. One of the bass players, for example, did some slapping and popping on one of the tracks which I had never considered before. He just did it and thought that it would suit the song. And it did!
KR: Maurizio Antonino plays the drums on the new album, as he did on the previous ‘Kicking The Olive Branch’, are you no longer working with Christopher Knight? You had previously been involved for many years?
SM: Chris is no longer working as a musician. Last I spoke with him, he had decided to pack it all in and take up crown green bowling!!! I've known a few musicians do similar things over the years: just suddenly pack it in. These have tended to be non-writers, strangely enough. Chris played on quite a few records, but we never actually met. I found him via a music magazine; we got in touch and it started from there. I would post him the songs; he would do his bit and post them right back. Those were the days! Can't believe how quickly we managed to get things done, though.
KR: You use guests providing flute, trumpet and violin on the album, quite a move away from the early days. Why the change in approach?
SM: Variety!!!! While I am fairly competent on the flute, I am no soloist: I can play what I write and that's about it. On a lot of the albums, I used symphonic instruments anyway, so I've always had a leaning in that direction. So, having a trumpet player or violinist makes perfect sense. The only reason why they are not on the earlier releases is that I either can't play the instruments, or it was too expensive to hire someone who could. Where I would have written for a violin or sax, I would play a keyboard or guitar solo instead. In short, I've always written parts for instruments other than guitar/bass/drums . . . just never had the means to do it! It's a very positive thing, for sure, but horrendously expensive.
KR: Please describe the album and what you wanted to achieve with each track
SM: Yes, the new album . . . . my current favourite! Until the next one, of course! The album is not a concept album, but the tracks are thematically linked in that they deal with magic and mystery in some form or another.
This song is all about change. Whether it be appearance or opinion or location. Anything, really, and how that impacts both positively and negatively on those around you. We all change over time - or have change thrust upon us - and it is not always for the best.
Heartbeat of the Nation
This changed from the original song (a ballad) and ended up being very anthemic. I thought it had a nice stomp to it - a heartbeat!
This is, at heart, a love song and deals with being so enraptured with someone that you can't help but think it is magic.
Avoidance of Mirrors
A song about growing older, which is a real pain and I hate it! Not the song, mind, which is quite groovy and littered with all the prog-rock trimmings you would expect.
This is a little semi-orchestral piece, almost a fragment of an idea. When I had finished it, it was going to languish in the 'done' pile and maybe dug out for something else. But when I was compiling the album it made a nice bridge to the title track. It, er, connected them!
The Ghost of a Smile
As daft as it sounds, this one is about peripheral vision . . . seeing things that might be there out of the corner of your eye but then, again, they might not be. Whether it is an object or you thought you saw someone smiling at you, this tune attempts to convey those sort of feelings. Some lovely acoustic playing and lots of different sections. My favourite track on the album.
This has a very long acoustic/orchestral intro and I was very nervous about doing it. It takes so long to get to the end section, which is a multi-layered trumpet solo-ed blast of a thing, that I thought people might get bored along the way. But it's a journey song, so you have to stick with it before it's goodness is fully revealed. Love the trumpets on this and the guitar riffs are pretty cool, too.
KR: What’s next both for Steven McCabe and Elegant Simplicity?
SM: I am currently remastering and releasing the very early albums. A lot of them are not available on any platform. So I am giving them a polish with new artwork, some gentle remastering and getting them out there. I am planning one remaster per month. The first one is ‘Purity and Despair’ and that will be followed by ‘Moments of Clarity’ and whatever else comes next. In no particular order! There are 12 albums to do, so quite an undertaking.
In the meantime, the next album is already written and recorded as full demos. I just need to book the additional musicians and find another vocalist. The centrepiece is a 20-minute vocal track which I think requires two singers! There are another 6 tracks and they are instrumental pieces. Some interesting surprises! One of the tracks is a country/prog crossover. As odd as it sounds, it is terrific. I found a great pedal steel player and it really has that authentic country sound to it. Very different! I may have even invented a new prog-rock sub-genre!
For more information on Steven and Elegant Simplicity then visit his excellent site at https://www.elegantsimplicity.com