Protean Collective - Interview by Vinaya Saksena|
Formed in 2005, Boston-based progressive metallers Protean Collective have gradually built a name for themselves, issuing a series of self-released CD's and gigging extensively. This year has seen them open local shows for respected prog names such as Cynic and Pain of Salvation, and their latest release, "The Red and the Grey" takes their sound to a new level with the aid of Sweden's reputed Fascination Street Studios (whose services have been employed by Opeth, Kreator, Devin Townsend, Soilwork and Paradise Lost, among others), where the album was mixed and mastered. Maximum Metal's Vinaya Saksena recently met up with the band- vocalist/ guitarist Graham Bacher, guitarist Stephanie Goyer, bassist Daniel Ehramjian and drummer Matt Zappa- for a discussion that took in everything from depression to dynamics (both musical and personal) to one member's unfortunate introduction to the music of Metallica.
|VS: How the heck did you come up with that name, anyway?|
Graham: It was too much over-thinking I think. I think we were sitting down and we spent way too much time trying to think of a name. We were just trying to think of cool words, I think. And we liked protean. It's means like easily changing shape.
Steph: Yeah, I remember I was looking around for words that sounded cool and also had some sort of meaning. Because I didn't want to just pick a random bunch of words that didn't mean anything. So, I thought that was neat, being able to change. Because I think at that time especially, but even now, we were trying to write music that didn't limit us and could go any way that we felt like it and could kind of encompass all of our different inspirations and influences.
VS: How did the band form?
Steph: We were in college [at Boston's Berklee College of Music]. Me and Graham had been playing music together for a little bit. We knew each other in high school, because our towns were very close to each other. And we lived in the dorms and Matt lived in the dorms too. And we would, like, for months and months and months and months be like, "oh, let's jam. We're gonna jam. We're gonna jam." And finally we did, and the three of us have been together ever since. [To Dan] And then, tell him about when you joined.
Dan: So, Matt knew me kind of, because he was hanging around a lot of the rod and gun clubs and stuff, that scene where you rent a hall and do a show all day. That's where I met him and saw these guys before I actually knew who they were, with my other band at the time. It was 2009. Matt called me up in the middle of summer and said, "we need a fill-in bass player." And we've basically stuck since then. We started writing music and…never turned back after that.
Graham: We were doing it for awhile, and at some point, I think we all just looked at each other and said "you're in the band, aren't you?"
Steph: It worked really quickly. I feel like, with those kinds of things, you kind of know, musically, if it fits or not.
Dan: It wasn't really a conversation. It was just a realization. "You're kinda in the band now." [All laugh.]
Graham: When you gel, you gel.
VS: What were your musical influences and goals when you started the band?
Steph: It's funny. I think we just wanted to play music. One of the reasons we liked being in a band together was because we didn't really limit each other stylistically. Especially at first, the music was very… We all loved metal, but we all had jazz influence, rock influence, funk influence. We all had all these influences. And at first the music really was kind of all-encompassing. It was all of those different styles. And we loved that about each other. If somebody had an idea, even if it was a little bit out of left field, we would definitely indulge it. And we would try to come up with a way to fit all that into a song. And we all wanted to make music our life any way we could. I think that was always our goal.
Graham: I think the idea was always to [create] music that we liked. We were never deciding "we're gonna be a metal band" or anything like that. It was, "let's play and see what happens." I think it's really cool if you can find people that you click with on that level. It was a lot of experimenting in there.
Dan: That's what makes it fun. I came into it when you guys already had a lot of material written and were working on new stuff too. I was just kind of trying to catch up to where you guys were in the band already. I just kind of caught on and started throwing ideas out, just like that. The way we function as a band I think is that everybody is just as important as everybody else, as far as sticking [ideas] in the song.
Graham: As far as what we were listening to, when we started I was in a phase which I'm not sure I'll really leave. I was listening to, personally, a lot of prog rock, like King Crimson, Porcupine Tree, all those kinds of things. There's always a lot in there. There's something that I've been thinking about kind of a lot lately, and there was really one band that me and Matt and Steph kind of clicked about when we were talking was Pain of Salvation, who we're playing with [in September] which is a super exciting show, because it feels like part of where we came from.
Dan: Childhood heroes.
Steph: They released a DVD called "Be" around that time, which was this really artsy, conceptual album. It involved an orchestra, it involved elements of metal, progressive metal, progressive rock and just great all-around music. It's an incredible album, and we would just watch that DVD over and over and over again. We were obsessed with it. Really, the three of us bonded over it. We were listening to a ton of Opeth, a ton of Meshuggah, a ton of Porcupine Tree. I think we saw Porcupine Tree, like, six times in a matter of three years. All that kind of stuff. I think we just had a passion for really good songwriting and composition, and we really just looked up to and were inspired by bands who could create these incredible songs.
Dan: I'm just laughing because I'm thinking where I was when you guys had formed the band. And I so don't wanna say I was just getting into, like, Metallica. And that would be their new album at the time, and everybody hated it.
Dan: No, it was "St. Anger." That was the first Metallica album I bought. And immediately, I knew there was something wrong about it. [All laugh.] I was so upset. "I think I got a bad copy. What's wrong? It sounds bad!" But it came with a DVD about searching for the bass player. And, like, because of that and being a bass player in high school, I was like, "Okay, this speaks to me. The album is kinda shitty, but…"
VS: How would you say the band's sound has developed since then?
Steph: I think it was maybe a little more experimental, prog rock [at first]. It wasn't as heavy. And I think what it evolved to was just sort of taking all of these things that we all loved, all these different elements and just focusing them a little tighter, along a more progressive metal, slightly heavier vein, but still with everything we started out with. I think maybe the evolution was more learning how to write songs. I think people who write songs say the only way to write better songs is to just write and write and write and write and write and go through that.
Dan: I think, coming from an outsider's perspective at first, and now being inside and hearing what it's become… I used to listen to you guys before I was in the band, and I think you remember that. But it was experimental. I would say more along the lines of it was open. There was a lot of room. And I think, especially over the past two albums, we've really focused our energies on more of a melodic kind of focus. How does this section, this riff… how can it, in the overall structure, be more melodic? And I think that focus on how we make things connect is really how it's developed.
Graham: I think the keyword is focus. I think it's a lot more focused than it was before. I'd say right now it's probably darker than what we've done before, but in general, I think it's just more cohesively done.
Dan: Definitely darker.
VS: What made it darker?
Graham: Probably just our taste at the moment.
Steph: There's a lot of harmonic minor. That'll do ya right there!
"I don't really feel that ghosts really mean apparitions and this sheet above your head, Casper shit. It's regrets that you have or the people in your memory that you never got over or resolved."
Dan: I think, just in general, a lot less major chords. Not to be all nerdy about it, but it's just that there's not a lot of major chords in our music at the moment, especially on the last album.
Steph: I love weird scales. Just, like, any kind of weird sounding scale. I like things that make your ear kinda go, "hey, what's that?" You know?
Dan: I like when the music gives you the stank face. I do that on stage a lot, I think. I make a lot of bass face.
VS: As guitar players, what are each of your roles in the band?
Graham: Um, Steph plays guitar well, and I make cool sounds. [Laughs all around] No, it really depends on the song.
Steph: I think what's amazing about Graham is the stuff he can manage to play and sing at the same time, which I love. It's not even defined, in a way. We both have different styles, but we both write riffs, we both play solos, and I love that. For example, in "Emerge," the first song from the new album, you have these like, ambient, weird… I feel like you're really just using your ear, playing a lot of half-steps, just incredible tones. You know, Graham makes all these ambient noises that are just fantastic. And I just… I shred. I don't know.
Matt: I'd say it's like Robert Fripp and Michael Romeo.
Steph: But at the same time, over the years, I think we've changed the way each other plays. For example, when we started as a band, I didn't know the first thing about my guitar tone or gear or anything at all. And now, that's like, a huge passion of mine, trying to make different noises, making different sounds. Graham always phrased better than I did. I phrase better now because of him. And there's also been times when I've written fast riffs, and I've been like, "Graham, you're gonna play this with me." And he's been like, "no, I'm not." And I've been like, "yes, you are!" We've almost, like, grown up together as guitar players, which is really cool.
VS: Your new album was mixed and mastered at Fascination Street Studios in Sweden. Tell us about the effect that had on how the album came out.
Steph: We sent them the album after we finished tracking it. We engineered the album ourselves, but then we sent it out to Fascination Street. One of their engineers [Andre Alvinzi] mixed it. He was a very creative person, and one thing he did was he used a ton of overdriven bass. And he [Dan] had never used a distortion pedal. So we got these mixes back and we were like, "holy shit, this is awesome!"
Matt: I remember I had to turn off the recording after the first fifteen seconds of hearing. "This is too good!"
Steph: It was so out of left field, but it was like, "oh my god, this is great!" And that has become, I think, a part of our sound. And now he uses the Big Muff [distortion pedal].
Dan: Yeah, my first reaction to it, I listened to it and I was like, "he fucked it up!" [All laugh.] I went, "Shit!" I was so upset. But then, I listened to it again and I listened to it with these guys, and it just was at a totally different level. And since then we've done a whole lot of trying to recreate the sound. And since then it's made it so much bigger, and people are like, "how the hell do you make it that big?" It's just a Big Muff. [Much laughter.]
Steph: You were here for another round bottom, weren't you?
Dan: It's just a Big Muff. The Big Muff goes with the round bottom.
Matt: Can you tell we're not a very serious band?
Graham: No, we're wicked serious.
Matt: We're serious about our music, actual playing, the songwriting. Everything else is up for grabs.
Dan: I mean, the 1x15 helps with bottom. Makes it really round. [Laughs]
VS: You've accomplished some pretty cool things as a band, like the Cynic and Pain of Salvation opening slots. What else has been a highlight of your career so far?
Graham: This album. This album in general. I think when we got all the mixes to listen to, that was my highest point for us as a band. It was such a good feeling. We've had a few things we put out before, and it's always, you get to the end and you're kind of tired of some of the things that are on it. You're like, alright time to move on. And this one, we got back, and it was like, I wanna listen to it again and again. It was so exciting.
Matt: Definitely the best thing I've ever done. I'm damn proud.
Graham: Yeah. Andre did amazing things to it.
Steph: He put so much creativity into it. It was incredible. It was honestly like- and I told him after- I was like, "having you do this album was like having a fifth band member."
VS: Just from the mix?
Matt: Absolutely. We had never had someone outside the band put that much care into what we'd been pushing for.
Steph: Not trying to mix it ourselves was a good idea. Really, like, sending it to somebody respected.
Graham: I think a lot of it too was that we know each other's processes really well, so I think we've figured out how we all work super-well together.
|Matt: We pushed ourselves a lot on this one. We're very meticulous. Before we always just recorded practices and then we went back and then we went in the studio. This time, we recorded everything and listened to it. And I notate a lot of stuff, like fills and stuff I've done that I know. These guys recorded guitars on top of it, and like, these scratch tracks and figured out, like, on a production level where we wanted everything to sit. |
Steph: We basically recorded the whole album, and then recorded it again.
Matt: Yes, several times.
Steph: There were no points where we went "Oh, I wish we had done that." Because we went through that process with the demo-ing. We demoed the album, and then we fixed all that stuff, and then we recorded it for real.
Graham: We recorded everything, and then we recorded new things on top of it.
Steph: It was funny, because when we recorded it the first time, I was like, "oh, we'll probably keep a lot of these guitars." And then when we went to record it, it was like, "nope. Scrapping everything. Everything's happening again."
VS: Early on, like on the "Once Mechanical" album , it seems like you guys had some pretty ambitious ideas, but maybe you weren't quite there yet in terms of executing them.
Steph: That's definitely how it felt.
Matt: Yeah, I still listen to that, and I really like the album. Musically, there's some really good ideas. But the execution is not [where] we wanted it to be. Because, like I said, we were still growing.
Steph: I think you're right, though. It's interesting. I think that every band goes through that. I think it's more about how learning how to get from point A to point B. It's sort of like, when you've been together for a long time, that's what you learn how to do. And you had to get from one thing to another. I'm sure everybody in every profession has that.
Graham: Yeah, know your strengths and know your weaknesses.
Steph: Not being afraid to fail, I think, is really important.
VS: With the current musical landscape, how do you see yourselves doing things in the future?
Matt: Until we get to the point where we literally can't do it on our own, selling our albums, pursuing our own distribution online, working on getting bigger tours, we'll keep it DIY, until we find someone else who can give us a good deal and take us to that next level. And I feel like, as it stands right now, a booking agent is as good as gold right now, to get you one of these bigger tours. Because we're lucky enough that we find all these opening slots like Cynic, Pain of Salvation, Powerglove and all these different groups. But to get on those tours? Cool.
Steph: Yeah. I think the value of a booking agent is, I guess to us, almost more than a record label. That's what we're feeling. Because, you know, it's getting people in your corner who have connections.
Matt: Because, we talk about working with Jens Bogren, working with Andre and recording it ourselves, we have the capabilities between Steph and Graham, the technicality to be able to produce a quality album that stands up to a lot of stuff I love that's out there. So, until we get to the point where we can't do it ourselves, [then] we'll bring someone else in who can.
VS: How did you end up getting the Fascination Street guys to work on the album?
Graham: We were thinking about it, because, you know, it would be good to get somebody else involved this time and just do it. So we kind of just went through a lot of albums we loved, and Fascination Street just kept coming up on a lot of our favorite albums. So, we were like, "we might as well just get in touch and see if we can work with him.
Steph: Yeah, we just got in touch with them and sent it over via the magic of the internet. But what I was listening through everything that they've done, what kept hitting me is the way they mixed drums is just so beautiful. And you know, one of my favorite drummers is Dirk from Soilwork, and he was on the Devin Townsend "Deconstruction" album. When you listen to this album, all of his accents and you know, the little things, they still pop up in the mix. It's not just like…
Matt: Pro Tooled to hell. Triggered to hell.
Steph: There's a lot of dynamics. They take the time to do all the dynamics. And I couldn't imagine that music any other way.
Matt: At core, I love death metal. And I always wanted to bring that energy into the band. But there's so much [more]. I'm a big jazz guy, so, like, I want my dynamics in there. And Jens and all those guys up there know how to do that.
Steph: It wouldn't have sounded like you if it had been mixed any other way. I feel like it sounds like you.
Matt: I think it's the first time that I've been captured accurately.
Steph: It sounds like you. It was just captured.
Dan: It sounds like all of us, though too.
Steph: Graham and I got in a hilarious, huge fight three days before it was finished. We still had a deadline. We needed to send it to him. And it still came down to the wire the last few days. We were just tracking, tracking, tracking, tracking day and night. And I had saved one solo for the end, the solo on "The Red and The Grey," that like, harmonized diminished thing. And I was starting to lose my mind- which is great. That's a spooky song, and I was just like, "well, I feel like a psychopath, so I'm just gonna write something that sounds absolutely weird and insane." And I wrote it! And I said, "Graham, look what I did! This is perfect for the song!" I thought it fit the mood of the song. And Graham was like, "no…" [To Graham:] You hated it. It was so funny.
Graham: That's not what happened! [Steph laughs.] What happened is she was so excited. [Steph: "I was so excited."] She was like, "Check this out. I wrote the perfect thing! I wrote the perfect thing!" And then she played it for me, and I just, like, stood there. And she was like, "do you love it?" And I was like, "not really."
Steph: [Laughs] I thought you were being nice. But that was funny. And you ended up liking it in the end.
Graham: I love it now.
Steph: That happens so much. Like, sometimes I'll write a riff in, and I'm like, "oh my God, this sucks!" I'll naysay it. And then, a day later, I'll be like, "I'm sorry. That's the best riff I've ever written!" [Laughs]
VS: On the new album, you two [Graham and Matt] wrote the lyrics. What inspired you?
Matt: For me, the song "The Red and the Grey" had to do with what depression really does to you. Because depression to me, you could just be walking through the day and all of the sudden everything turns grey. You lose all color. Nothing sounds the same. You listen to music, it sounds completely different to you. Like, it doesn't excite you in the way it did. Eating something doesn't [taste] right. Just, day to day [life] loses all its luster and anything that's good about it. And then depression just takes it to a point where it's just sinking you down, sinking you down, where you're desperate, desperate because you just want to have a little bit of something, just any kind of color in your life. And the red to me signifies that point where you're so down, you're about to commit suicide.
Red is the color of passion, the color of blood. It's the last thing for you. The album kind of feels like that dire moment [when] you could go one way or the other, through most of these songs. Well, I can't speak for Graham's songs. But it's emotionally in the music.
Graham: I'd say for me, I think a lot of the writing period for this was [when] I had some real bad concussion problems, and there was a lot of dealing with that. So I think for me a lot of it is kind of dealing with the weirdness and depression and changes that [occur], trying to look optimistically at that. It's more like portraits of how I was feeling at different moments than anything else, you know?
Matt: Malcolm Ingraham [film director] put it out there as, just like, "make art for you when you need it the most." So for me, it was writing lyrics for when I was sixteen. From sixteen to twenty-two was, like, my most turbulent years. And [he said], write songs that would make me feel better during that time. For "Room 16"… We started getting to the point where we could play bigger shows and having all of this work kind of come to fruition for a lot of things. And during the writing process, I lost my mom, and also there was this one musician… Remember when there was a rash of queer suicides? There was this kid called Tyler Clementi at Rutgers University, and he was outed by one of his roommates because he was filmed hooking up with someone. He was super in the closet and friends tweeted it out to everyone. So, he just couldn't handle it and jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge. And he was a big musician too, apparently. He was a violinist. I checked out his stuff, and it's really good. But I always felt haunted by those two people. I don't really feel that ghosts really mean apparitions and this sheet above your head, Casper shit. It's regrets that you have or the people in your memory that you never got [over] or resolved. And I felt like at those shows that we're playing now, there's always two spots. There's a spot where I'm like, "ah, that's exactly where my mom would be. That's where Tyler [would be]."
Steph: There's one show that your mom came to that I always remember. Because my mom was like, "Matt's mom was clapping and singing and playing air drums." [Matt laughs.] And she was so impressed. She was like, "she [knew] all the words and all the air drums?"
Matt: Yeah, she definitely stole a few of my CD's. [Steph laughs.] But yeah, she was just generally a loudmouth. So I don't really fall too far away from that tree.
VS: Is there anything else you'd like to convey that I didn't bring up?
Matt: Everyone is connected through music. …Be honest and don't be an asshole.
Graham: That's good life advice. That's not music advice.
Matt: It applies to everything, but specifically in music, for all the musicians out there.
Steph: It really makes me happy that the music we make makes other people happy. That's all you could really ask for when you wanna be a musician, that when you get on stage, other people have a good time.
Matt: The first time we ever had people singing along to our music was insane to me.
Steph: That was a nice moment. Those are the moments that when you see bands you like make you really happy when they play your favorite song and you sing a long. That's an amazing feeling. It's very nice to be able to give someone that feeling.
Dan: I think whatever gives somebody joy and passion, just… follow it. For me, it's not just that feeling of standing on stage and having my hair in front of my face so I can peek out before we start our set and realize how many people are there. Or the one time a mosh pit broke out at our CD release.
Matt: The one time a mosh pit broke out? There's been several times!
Dan: It's striving for those moments. And whatever it is, it's different for everybody.
VS: And what are your plans or hopes for the future?
Matt: Take over the world!
Graham: I hope we can start doing some bigger tours and write some better music and make some better albums.
Matt: Yeah! Why would I not wanna make better music?
Graham: Everything's a progression. I wanna keep stepping it up.
Steph: I just hope we get to bring the music out there, that we could go on tour and be able to bring the live show all over the country. If we could have that honor that would be really cool.
Matt: I wanna take us to Europe. I wanna take us to India. I wanna take us to Asia and shit. I've said this before, but Quintin Tarantino said "make art to be able to travel the world." Make something that we play in Boston, [or] if someone from Russia hears our album, they get it on the same level as someone from Uruguay or someone from Cairo.
Graham: All we want to do is get as many people listening to it and hope they get something out of it. That's all we can hope for.
Matt: Better someone's day.