Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Dan Britton Interview, 2009

This is an interview I did with Dan Britton (Deluge Grander, Birds & Buildings, All Over Enerywhere) in 2009. 
It was posted originally in Prog Archives and Progressive Ears.
Thanks to Duncan Glenday for the editing and arrangements and to Debby Sears for the pictures and Frank Stickles for the video at the end.

Progressive Ears (Assaf Vestin): Can you tell us about your musical journey - what were your favourite childhood bands/musicians? How did you come to listen to Prog-Rock?

Dan Britton: The first music I remember obtaining as a kid were cassette albums by Bryan Adams, Howard Jones, Don Henley, The Cars, and Phil Collins when I was about 7 or 8 years old in the mid-1980's. Then I got into The Eagles and ZZ Top when I was about 12. The big revelation was getting Genesis' Duke CD and then, a few weeks later in 1991, Nursery Cryme and Foxtrot, on the same day. After Genesis came Yes, then ELP, then King Crimson, then Gentle Giant, and of course I became aware of Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd along the way, but didn't get as enthralled with them.

After purchasing a "Goldmine" magazine in 1995, I became aware of "Progression" magazine and the whole underground prog scene. The first "obscuro" albums I heard were Alquin's first two albums - I figured this would be a good purchase since it was 2 albums on 1 CD - and a low quality live PFM CD from the Chocolate Kings tour. Then, in Christmas of 1996, I made a big order from Greg Walker/Syn-Phonic, which contained a lot of albums I had seen mentioned in all these publications. If I remember correctly, they were Magma's Hhai, Anglagard'sHybris, Deus ex Machina's De Republica, the Crucis 2-on-1, PFM's Per un Amico, Il Trono dei Ricordi, and I think Mastermind's Tragic Symphony. When people ask me how I found out about progressive music, I usually just say "the Internet," but I was actually just finding out about all these obscure groups before I started using the Internet much, which was in 1997.

PE: When did you start playing, and then composing?

DB: I've been playing the piano for as long as I can remember. I took piano lessons from around 5 years old to 16, but I never liked them, and I almost never practiced what I was supposed to. I started playing the guitar around age 8, and I probably played it more than piano when I was 12-23 years old, simply because it was more portable and easier to play at home or in my rooms at college. All the while I was composing music on both instruments.

PE: What were your influences?

DB: The piano lessons and playing in my middle school jazz band gave me a basis in classical music and jazz. Combining that with the energy of youthfulness pushed me into what would be called "progressive rock." I suspect that the music I've made wouldn't have been all that different if I'd never heard all the 1970's prog bands, but that's impossible to say. A lot of the chord sequences I write could be labeled as similar to something Tony Banks would do, and there's a lot of repetitive and agitated stuff that could be compared with Magma. But again, I might have written chord sequences with major sevenths and repetitive bass lines anyway, and it's hard to determine exactly what amounts to a genuine "influence" and what's just "similarity."

PE: When did you have your first band?

DB: In 9th grade I played rhythm guitar in a group, but we weren't very good. I joined a prog-rock cover band just after college, which actually played 5 or 6 shows in Columbia, SC that were surprisingly well-attended, now that I think about it.

PE: What are current bands you're into - prog and non-prog?

DB: Technically, I'd have to say my favorite bands are groups like Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, etc., but that's not terribly exciting to say anymore. So I'll pick a few less prog and obscure groups I really like: Areknames, Cardiacs, Elliott Smith, Of Montreal, Ruja, Finisterre, and Emily Bezar.

PE: Is there anyone you would be interested in collaborating with?

DB: I'd love to collaborate with other musicians, but, even with modern technology, you still need to be in the same room with them at least a few times in order to make meaningful complex music. And that means coordinating schedules, which is often very difficult, especially when more than two people are involved. But there are quite a few musicians I feel some kinship towards: people like Mikael Akerfeldt, Michele Epifani of Areknames, and Fabio Zuffanti of La Maschera di Cera, Finisterre, and Hostsonaten. Those guys seem to come up with ideas that appeal a lot to me, and it would be interesting to collaborate with people like that, though of course they've all probably got better things to do.

Deluge Grander At The Orion Studios

PE:  How did you hook up with the musicians that make up the two bands?

DB: I answered an ad online back in 2003 and met Cerebus Effect, from which Patrick Gaffney and I formed Deluge Grander with Dave Berggren and Brett d'Anon, both of whom I met online, although I believe Patrick knew someone who knew Brett before he answered the ad.

Malcolm McDuffie - the Birds and Buildings' drummer - I met by Craigslist. Brian Falkowski, sax, clarinet and flute, from some actual paper fliers I put up on the University of Maryland's campus.

PE:  Why did you deliberately misspell the names Cerebus Effect and Deluge Grander? And why did you choose the names you did for your bands Cerebus Effect, Deluge Grander, and Birds & Buildings?

DB: I didn't name Cerebus Effect. They were a band with two CD EP releases way before I ever joined. You'd have to track down Joe Walker to find out what that band's name means, because I was never able to get a straight answer from him.

The name "Deluge Grander" is a pun on the phrase "Delusions of Grandeur." Literally "Deluge Grander" just means "Flood Bigger" with that European-style adjective-following noun thing. I thought it was a tongue-in-cheek way of admitting that our music was pretentious.

PE:  Forgive the next naive and perhaps misinformed question. The two Deluge Grander albums are quite different in approach - though they still have a common thread between them. Why then did you create this new project Birds and Buildings, and not release Bantam to Behemoth under the Deluge Grander name?

DB: Birds and Buildings is a different group Deluge Grander. Brett played on both albums, but mostly as a guest, and only after Birds and Buildings's original bass player quit, after playing with us for almost a year. Malcolm, the Birds and Buildings' drummer, has a very strong musical personality that distinguishes Birds and Buildings from Deluge Grander in my opinion. And Brian, the Birds and Buildings' sax player, is very much a jazz musician, who really doesn't know much about "prog." Those two guys are very important to how Birds and Buildings sounds.

Back in 2006, after August in the Urals was finished, Dave and Patrick wanted to take some time off and do other things, while I wanted to keep going. I had just moved to Washington, DC from Baltimore - these two cities are about 45 minutes apart - so I decided to look around DC for a drummer. I found Malcolm, and I thought he was great, so I knew I wanted to play with him. At first I wanted to keep the name "Deluge Grander," but he and the other guys in what became Birds and Buildings weren't wild about "August in the Urals," and the music we were playing was fairly different, at least in the execution. So it just made sense to call this band something else, since it really is a different band.

PE:  You created your own label, Emkog, through which you released the albums by Deluge Grander and Birds and Buildings. Do you release your music on your own label because you prefer it that way? Is it easier for you, allows you for more freedom, or is it the lack of interest from prog labels? And will you only release your own material through it or will you consider releasing other musicians or bands albums?

DB: I've always heard that labels are mostly interested in bands who play live a lot. For many reasons, the bands I'm in tend to not play live very much, and so I don't think labels would be interested in us. My stance has always been that I would love to play live, but only if we did it well. But unfortunately, it's hard to play live unless you do it a lot, and it's difficult to play live a lot. And trying to get groups to play live, no matter how dedicated everyone claims they are, can often be a source of conflict and wind up making people not want to play in the band at all.

Birds and Buildings played about 8 shows, and they were fun and good, but the crowds averaged about 10-20 people, and it was stressful to arrange them, rehearse for them, and drive there. My main priority is on releasing "studio" albums, and though I'd love to play live, there just aren't many places that would let us play. Deluge Grander, until very recently, never did, and ironically the strongest reception any album I've been on got was for "August in the Urals," for which precisely zero live shows were ever performed. So that makes me think that this whole "play live to survive" dogma doesn't apply anymore.

But back to the label question…."Emkog Records" is just a name on a CD and a pile of boxes in the corner of my apartment. If any real label made me an offer, I'd certainly consider it. But I've never received one, so I imagine labels aren't really interested. And I'm not really sure how much better it would be on a label. When people actually bought CDs in stores that would only stock certain labels, then yeah, I could see why being on a label was helpful. But nowadays, the distribution of music is so much more direct that being on a label doesn't seem to so important to me anymore. If anyone else wants to put an album out on "Emkog" let me know! [Laughs]

PE:  Do you write differently for your different bands or do you come up with a tune and then decide to which band it fits better?

DB: Back when Cerebus Effect was still an entity, I outlined 3 albums I wanted to do. Those were August in the Urals,Bantam to Behemoth, and a hitherto unreleased album tentatively entitled Circular Istoria, onto which I put what I thought was the best material. So before Deluge Grander was formed, I already had the outlines to most of that first album. There was a similar situation with Birds and Buildings, though "Terra Fire," "Battalion," and "Chakra Khan" were created after it had formed. With the second Deluge Grander album "The Form of the Good" I tried to write material I thought would suit Dave and Patrick, which is no small feat since they are each very idiosyncratic players. You wouldn't think they'd have much in common musically if you knew what they listen to. Dave is a Grateful Dead / Phish guy, and Patrick is a math-metal / heavy-fusion guy.

August In The Urals, The Form Of The Good, Bantams To Behemoths

The in-progress second Birds and Buildings album was also mostly written with Brian's and Malcolm's styles in mind. I realized last week that it will probably be regarded as "less ominous" and "more American" than the first Birds and Buildings album. I've got about 5 albums worth of other ideas, and it's often tough to decide which would go with which group. I'm also involved with 2 other groups that haven't released anything yet. I rarely decide to write for a particular group. Usually it's just a matter of compiling already-existing ideas into an actual song for one group or another.

PE:  Are you happy with your musical output so far? Is there something you feel you should have done differently? Do you feel you could do better with a bigger budget or anything of this sort?

DB: Pretty happy, although I haven't listened closely to any of the 4 albums I've finished in a while. I really liked "Birds Flying Into Buildings," "Yucatan 65," "Chakra Khan," and "Battallion/Sunken City Sunny Day" from Birds And Buildings Bantam to Behemoth, and I really like "Before the Common Era," the first 5 minutes of "The Tree Factory," most of "Aggrandizement," and the second half of "The Form of the Good" from Deluge Grander The Form of the Good. But there are plenty of things about even those tracks that I could have done differently, even though it was released only a few months ago. For example, I just recently got software that does the whole modern limiting/compression thing well. I suspect that many people who say the album sounds like it was from the 1970's or was "poorly produced" wouldn't have said this if I had put the songs through that limiter.

I decided in 2006 to try to do as much "production" on my own as I could. The main disadvantage of that is that the first few albums I do won't sound well-produced, but the advantage is that it's cheaper, and eventually I'll learn more and hopefully be able to do it as well as the so-called professionals.

There are tons of things I would have done differently if I had the knowledge then that I have now. But almost anyone who makes a few albums or writes a few books would say that. All the keyboard parts for August in the Urals were recorded using a 1/8" adapter going into a very cheap soundcard in my computer. And I didn't know anything about EQ-ing and compression limiting, which is pretty basic stuff. The guy I paid to sort of "mix" and "master" the album just applied these standard cookie-cutter settings to those tracks. And I did the production to "The Solitude of Miranda" all on my own. When I hear that song now, the production faults really surprise me, but since a few people said they liked that song the best on the album, I suspect that production quality isn't really a big deal for a lot of listeners, and that some muddiness is quite ok.

Some of my favorite music was created by people who didn't know what they were doing production-wise or arrangement-wise at the time. Listen to the first two Pulsar albums, or almost any album from France or Italy in the early 1970's- the drums are distant and very weak, and the whole thing sounds like a huge mess, yet I still enjoy many of those albums a lot. Too often nowadays, people go after this "professional" production style, without seeming to notice how generic the results can be.

PE:  Some listeners describe your music as "retro-prog". Do you agree with this? And do you agree at all with describing bands that way?

DB: Musicians never seem to like the labels they get. I don't really mind the label "retro-prog," but I do find it misleading since Deluge Grander and Birds and Buildings really are not trying to just duplicate 1970s music, while some other bands admit that's what they're doing. There were quite a few things I did on Birds and Buildings Bantam to Behemoth and Deluge Grander The Form of the Good to try to make the music more distinctive, and to genuinely "progress," but I think some people just hear a Mellotron and a non-slick production and think "retro-prog." Just like when proggers hear a female singer, they think "Renaissance," and when they hear busy counterpoint, they think "Gentle Giant." I'm starting to think that a lot of these overused comparisons say more about a reviewer's limited musical knowledge than the music they're talking about. And similarity doesn't mean influence.

Most people who review the hundreds of "prog" albums released each year do so through a mindset of the same old bands- everything must be compared to Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Marillion, Kansas, Dream Theater, or Porcupine Tree. That's their template, and that's who they and their readers are familiar with. I suspect that if you gave a prog reviewer a Joni Mitchell album, they'd say it sounds like "stripped-down Renaissance meets Jethro Tull with a touch of Marillion".

What separates "prog" from "retro-prog"? Or "prog" from "progressive"? I thought about this and concluded that a big part of it is whether a conventionally notated transcription of the music would capture its essence. Most "prog" or "retro-prog" probably could be easily reduced to notes and instruments. Effects such as reverb, EQ'ing, phasers, and other experimental ways of playing instruments don't make up a significant part of what the music is about. Phil Collins once described why he didn't like Nursery Cryme by saying "It sounds like everyone is playing with two hands on the keyboard." I didn't understand at all what he meant at first, but now I think I do. A "genuinely progressive" band like Radiohead or Sigur Ros incorporates a lot of effects and un-transcribable noises into their songs. I am trying to do that too, but it's hard when I pretty much always have to play the basic bass lines, chords, and/or melodies during rehearsals. Extraneous noises and experimental effects usually require two hands too, and I rarely even have one free hand. So a lot of the experiments are added on after the fact, such as the wacko section of "The Tree Factory."

PE:  Who is responsible for the artwork of the Deluge Grander and Birds and Buildings albums? Did the artist come up with their own concept for those?

DB: I have elaborate plans that I sketch out for the artists, and they do what they can to follow them.

PE:  Cerebus Effect had several songs on Acts of Deception, then Deluge Grander had less on August in the Urals and The Form of the Good had only vocalizations - and Bantam To Behemoth had also very few lyrics. Do you prefer to create instrumental albums then?

DB: The vocals, ah the vocals ... it's a tough issue for me, because I know that many people don't like my singing. My position has always been that I'm not the best singer, but adding a few minutes of vocals to an album introduces a human element that no instrument can match, and is usually, therefore, good. Even if I don't like the vocals on an album, I'm often glad they're there because it makes the album more interesting for me as a listener. I suspect most listeners are the same.

When you're reviewing an album, it's natural to mention its faults, but sometimes those faults are what make an album fun to listen to. If you took away all the things that someone might dislike about an album, you'd be left with something very sterile. You'd be left with Eddie Money.

Ironically, after three albums that generally got comments like "good music, but the vocals were bad and shouldn't be there," I finally decided to do an album with only a minute or two of singing, and none of it by me. Since there were so many people who had said August in the Urals would have been better without vocals, I figured "they should be all over this." And then it's released to roughly the same reception, but with a little less enthusiasm. My suspicions are confirmed! You just can't trust reviewers

I probably will try to find other people to sing, but if I can't, and if I think vocals help a song, I might just have to sing again. Hey, that sounds like a song right there! "I might just have to sing again..."

PE:  As an addendum to that question; the two Deluge Grander albums and the Birds and Buildings album have themes, but as your output is mostly instrumental in nature, it seems you leave the whole of it for the listener to interpret or just ignore. Wouldn't lyrics, or maybe some writing in the booklet be a better way to convey your thoughts and messages? Also, would you care to tell us what is in general the theme behind From Bantam To Behemoth, or would you, as you've stated before, rather leave it to the listener to figure out as they wish?

DB: I generally prefer to leave any meanings unstated. It's easier for me, and I think it would be more fun for listeners to look for them if they want to. Sometimes lyrics, pictures, and song titles intentionally have double meanings or need to be vague to not seem dorky. And even more important, sometimes the needs of the music supersede the needs of the concept. When that happens, it's usually more important to make the music good, rather than let it dictate what the concept should be.

PE:  I've seen your albums - from all 3 bands - available as free illegal downloads in various blogs online.
How has, if you know, illegal downloads affected your bands and album sales? Has it helped garner more attention and awareness to your bands and music? Recently Martin Orford declared he's quitting the music business due to illegal downloads that severely affected his income and that he was tired of seeing his albums free for downloads on the net upon releasing them. How do you feel about it? Does it frustrate you as well? Do you do something about it when you encounter it?

DB: Nobody knows for sure what effect illegal downloads have on sales. Some people have said they actually increase sales, but I don't believe that. The net effect is probably negative, but I don't think it's terribly significant- I wouldn't be surprised if fewer than 1 percent of the people who download an album would have paid $10to $15 for it otherwise.

Nevertheless, it is frustrating to see music I worked very hard on being put out for free without my permission. But it's even more frustrating to see people say bad or ill-informed things about it, and they definitely have the right to do that. Even though I think the effects of illegal downloading are small, I do try to send takedown notices when I see an album of mine on a blog site. It amazes me that the people who put them up seem to think they're doing the bands a big favor. I guess for obscure albums, especially those that haven't been released on CD, those sites are doing humanity some good. I recently got the excellent album Side Show, never released on CD, by Paul Giovanni of The Wicker Man fame from a blog site. But I don't think they're helping newer bands very much.

I did follow Martin Orford's saga with some interest, since he's a musician I admired since I first heard Tales From the Lush Attic around 1997. Although I don't know precise sales figures, I'd imagine that sales for prog music were pretty high in the 1990's and that there's been a long slow decline since then. It's easy to blame downloading, and I do think that has contributed, but more important might be the sheer abundance of music out there. There is a huge quantity of good music to listen to, and you can listen to a lot of good stuff for free and legally on the Internet just at Internet radio stations and band websites. If I were 15 today, I would probably just do that and never pay for music. It does cheapen the whole experience a bit compared to the days when I had to save $20 from my $5 per hour job at a grocery store to buy just one CD, but it's also nice for musicians reach listeners in more direct and convenient ways.

When you've been trying to make a career out of selling your music, to see this glut of free music must be frustrating. I have a regular 9-5 job, and I'm not planning on making a career out of music, so it doesn't bother me too much. But I hope that anyone who gets a lot of enjoyment from an album they downloaded either buys a legal copy of the album, or feels guilty about not doing so. The idea that bands can give away their music and make money from touring and merchandise doesn't apply to everyone.

PE:  In your experience, have websites like MySpace - where both your bands have a page - and music/prog dedicated websites like Progressive Ears and the likes have helped in promoting your music, or not? Have promotional reviews helped?

DB: Well, I would say they've definitely helped, except The Form of the Good has gotten quite a few bad reviews at Progarchives! One reservation I have is the incentive for a reviewer to write a positive review so the band - and other bands - will continue to send him free promo copies. Another is that there seems to be a herd mentality, where the existing score affects how a person rates an album. And another is that people judge albums relative to their predecessors and not based on their own merits. And if the reviewer himself has an album of his own he's trying to sell, things can get a little shady!

Similar things happen in all the arts, and I like to think that people can tell the difference between an honest opinion and promotional hype or a microtrend, although maybe people aren't always that discerning.

PE:  Deluge Grander released The Form Of The Good in 2009 and Birds & Buildings released Bantam To Behemoth in 2008. What was the reaction to these two albums by reviewers and listeners?

DB: Positive overall, though there seems to be less enthusiasm for The Form of the Good, which is disappointing. Bantam To Behemoth got similar ratings to The Form of the Good on every other site I know of (Gnosis, Rateyourmusic, Progfreak, Babyblaue-seiten, Progressive Waves), though there's a huge difference between the ratings of those two albums at Progarchives.

I think a lot of people are getting so overwhelmed by the abundance of music that they become jaded and unlikely to listen to an album more than once or twice, or to even pay much attention to it at all whenever they hear it. I admit I do that sometimes. But the music I enjoy most is often stuff that I didn't like the first few times I heard it. If you listen to an album with the mindset "Alright, here's the 17th album of the 23 I got yesterday. It's probably not very good….", chances are you won't enjoy it. But if you actually spend $20 on a CD or LP, and it's the first new music you've obtained in a week, you're going to listen to that thing! I suspect that the former listener is typical of the 2000's, while the latter is typical of the 1970's, 1980's and 1990's.

I suspect that if someone is going to enjoy The Form of the Good the best listens will be around the 4th or 5th times, but not the first 1 or 2. Maybe it's arrogant for me to expect people to listen closely to an album more than twice nowadays though.

PPE:  Deluge Grander performed at Prog Day 2009. How was that experience? Did you guys have fun? How was the crowd's reaction? Do you perform anywhere else (locally)? Are you interested in having more shows (both bands)? Is there a chance of seeing you in another prog-fest, have you been approached by organizers (if you can tell us)? How hard is it to translate your music, which has many layers to a live setting? there must be compromises on the way, no?

As I said before, if we play live, I want to play well. If we're unlikely to play well, I'd rather not do it at all. So when we got the offer, I thought we'd do it if we could find a bass player who can play live. I asked two bass players I knew, and one said he didn't have time, and the other was very enthusiastic at first, only to realize 2 or 3 weeks later that he also didn't have time. Meanwhile the Progday people wanted a definitive yes or no as soon as possible. So I threw a hail mary and put an ad on Craigslist. A guitarist responded, and we met up the day before I was supposed to give Progday my final answer. I told the guy he'd have to play bass, he'd have to learn a bunch of difficult material fast, and he'd have to not change his mind. He said he wanted to do it, and he seemed capable, so I reluctantly told the Progday people we'd do it. The new bass player turned out to be an amazingly fast learner and surprisingly dedicated and reliable as well. And we even got Brian from Birds and Buildings to play, though the catch with him was that I had to spend about 10-20 hours writing parts for him and we'd have to give him a big chunk of the money Progday was paying us. I also got Megan Wheatley to sing on "Aggrandizement" and another song she and I are working on with a different project.

So everything was going great, when two weeks before the show, the new bass player finds out he has a work conflict and couldn't make it. This really sucked. I could play bassy parts on the keyboards, but that would have really been difficult and would have made it impossible to play all the other parts I wanted to do. And I had always been saying that I'd want to do it only if we had a bass player. But since it was only two weeks before the show, and we'd already put so much work into it, I figured we should go ahead and do it.

The performance was good given the circumstances, but I could barely hear anything on stage. And most people at this particular festival are there to be outdoors and drink beer and talk to their old friends rather than pay much attention to the music. And that's ok, but I still wonder whether it was worth the hundreds of hours we must have spent preparing for it. We are playing a show this week at Orion in Baltimore, but that's all that's been planned.

The other guys in the band say they want to play live more, but I don't want to spend hours trying to find gigs for us only to get a date booked for November 14th and have someone realize on November 12th they can't make it that day. And even if we did get a few gigs, if only five people show up to them, that could dampen everyone's enthusiasm about the project to begin with. It's better to just perform at big prog-friendly events where we're likely to find willing listeners, and maybe do a club or bar show around the same time if they work out.

We did have to re-arrange the parts - especially what I was playing - and the sound was certainly less full than the albums, but I bet some people would say that's a good thing. Someday I'd like to make a live album since the versions really are so different, but still good ... as long as we play them well, anyway.

 What can we expect in the future from Deluge Grander and Birds and Buildings?

From Deluge Grander- a three-tiered series of releases: On tier one, four vinyl-only releases limited to less than a hundred copies with hand-painted artwork for each, on tier two, two deluxe-packaged CDs with different versions of the material on those records, and on tier three, a CD for mass consumption that contains only the best material of all, and maybe it will be called "Ineffable Plethora." That's the tentative plan, but things will probably change, and these probably wouldn't be released until 2011 at the earliest.

From Birds and Buildings- the second album Multipurpose Trap will hopefully be finished in 2010.

PE:  You told me in the past of more projects coming along, beyond Deluge Grander and Birds & Buildings. Can you tell us what they are? Style, people involved etc?

All Over Everywhere is a group that plays more low-key and less complex, song-based material. The first album should be done very soon, but with the possible exception of two or three songs, it's not at all a "prog" album.

Elevator Machine Room involves the drummer Chris Mack - from Iluvatar, Oblivion Sun, and Puppet Show, a bassist, a guitarist, and me. We have three songs down pretty well, and two more that I've made some demos for. Those five might be enough for a first album, which would probably be done no earlier than 2011.

Thanks for taking the time to answer these.

You're welcome!

Dan Britton recording on the Streetly M4000 Mellotron

Photos courtesy of Dan Britton, and
(Special thanks to) Deb Sears
Video by Frank Stickles

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