A distinct murmur went around the world in 1994 when a certain six-string guitarist from New Jersey named Michael Romeo of the prog band Gemini recorded THE DARK CHAPTER demo and sent it out to record labels. It seemed the new guitar messiah of the coming 21st Century had made himself known to the world and he’d soon launch a new band that would stir up the prog genre! With an innovative mixture of Heavy Metal, Progressive Rock and (Neo)Classical hard sounds… that’s how started Romeo and his men in SYMPHONY X… They are: Russell Allen – vocals, Michael Romeo – guitar, Michael Pinnella – keyboards, Michael Lepond – bass guitar, Jason Rullo – drums.
Some weeks ago I had a long nice chat with Michael Romeo, and this is what we talked about…
Hi Michael, I’m Tarja, you’re very welcome to Metal Shock! How are you today?
Thanks Tarja, I’m very fine!
If you don’t mind, I’d like to talk first about the past… you formed the band in ’94, what was the initial input to start Symphony X?
Well, it was actually earlier, ’91 or ’92, can’t remember, it’s so long ago, lol. But I was playing in different bands, in high-school, jamming together with different guys, and I was really into the instrumental guitar-stuff, and I had a small 8-track recording-setup at my appartment back then. I did some solo intstrumental guitar-things, i.e. our “The Dark Chapter”. I did it for fun, I was in contact with several guitar players in my country, we talked with each other and changed the experiences and training pages. And somehow I got my tape to Japan and somebody reviewed my stuff on a japanese magazine. Then one day a record company “Zero Corporation” called me, and they wanted to know if I had a band. So, that’s how it started… but you know, those years metal wasn’t so popular, so it wasn’t easy to start a metal band. Then when this label called me because they liked my tape with my solo instrumental guitar stuff on it, it felt really good. ahahah so when they asked if I had a band, I replied “yes I do” and started to look for the band members right away LOL.
I’m always curious about the band’s name, so please tell me the story behind Symphony X…
Well to be honest, we didn’t really give a lot of thoughts about it. It was after the label had contacted us, one day we got together, it was me, Michael (Pinnella) and the original bass player, Tom Miller, and we were writing some songs, trying to put them together, then somebody said: “guys we should think about some name for the band”… so each of us threw out some names, and quite soon we came up to an idea that it has to do something with a classical thing, maybe symphony.. and then somebody just said: what about Symphony X? you know, the X like unknown thing … and we others agreed: “It sounds cool, ok we’ll take it, hey, but let’s get back to the songs now” …
What bands have influenced you personally the most?
oh man… so many bands, really! Well I think the first band I really started to listen to, was Kiss, which made me want to play the guitar. Those years I listened also to Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, and little by little I got more into the metal stuff… Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, Iron Maden, those bands gave me probably the biggest influences, I grew up with them.
In ’97 your album “The Divine Wings of Tragedy” made you to explore in the metal world. Do you still remember, how it changed the band’s life?
Well that record was our 3rd one, but for me it felt like it was the first album. You know, on our first record we had a different singer, and we just tried to put the band together as we had to to it quickly, so I consider the first album as a demo. And still on the second album we were kind of searching our style and path. But by The Divine Wings of Tragedy we felt that everything has fallen on the right places. And that record opened us new doors and we started to do well also in Europe and in Southern America, as before we were doing things basically only in Japan. That record did a lot to us.
Your first official show happened in ’98, in Japan. I guess your path has been marked since then. But can you tell me, what act from the past, you consider the most significant for your carreer? and why’s that?
Well, I have to say it was the first Japanese Tour, and only because, before we had done only studio records, and we weren’t really playing here in the States, because nobody really gave a crack at that kind of music. So I’ll always remember our first tour in Japan. We were so used to be in the studio and doing things over here in the States, and selling our records in Japan. We knew that we had a lot of fans, but we didn’t really realized it before going there. And then when we saw our fans, and played in all those places, that really changed everything for us! You know we were just a bunch of knuckleheads from New Jersey, and to to be able to see what it really means to be in real metal scene, it felt really great!
What is the craziest memory from your several tours around the globe? Any inside stuff that you’d like to reveal us?
Oh Man… well, you know, there really hasn’t been anyting crazy, we’ve been really lucky lol. You know, looking back to our tours, everything’s gone so smooth….
Symphony X is often compared to other progressive metal bands such as Dream Theater, Fates Warning and Shadow Gallery. But what makes your sound yours?
Well, all the bands have their own touch… if I should describe our sound to people who haven’t heard us yet, I would say: “yeah, we’re a little bit progressive, but we’re definitely a metal band.” You know there’s a lot of heavy guitar riffs, and different symphonic elements in our stuff. Over the last couple of years we’ve really concentrated to the songwriting, trying to graft a good song and a good arrangement. There’s this even balance of heaviness, but yet melodic, and some progressive stuff together. That’s what I think is “our thing”.
Musically it’s kind of close to it. You know, in the last couple of albums there were more guitar-driven, a lot of big riffs and a lot of choruses, and that kind of things. Paradise Lost was maybe a little bit darker, just because of the concept, you know, heaven and hell- stuff. But with this record we’re trying to find something different, a kind of “men versus machines”, you know, when the machines and techonogy are taking over everything… Paradise Lost might have been a darker orchestral album, and maybe something of it is still there on this new one, but also the mechanical overtones-stuff and it’s pretty agressive, too. But it’s still us, it’s still Symphony X…
What can you tell me about its songwriting process, and the lyric themes?
Especially in couple of last albums the songwriting usually goes like this: I take a couple of months by myself, and come up with some riffs and some basic song ideas, then I make the demos to the guys, and we’ll test the songs and discuss about them, you know “this is cool, that is not so cool”, and we work out the things together. And then we’ll start recording. We kind of write as we record. You know, the studio is at my place, so we can do a little bit of experiments, and try some things as we’re recording. And for the lyrics, me and Russell, we get together for a couple of weeks, and as the music has this mechanical kind of idea, we wanted the lyrics to follow this issue, you know, we’re talking there about the human eyes, you know, where everybody is worshiping the technology and how the machines are taking over… there was a lot to do also with the lyrics.
The 11 minutes long opening track, is also the title track “Iconoclast”. why you chose it to title your album?
Well yeah, the record is not really a concept one, even if everything’s kind of related, especially the music, as I said, it has this kind of mechanical thing. With the title track we try to find the meaning to all what we are talking about in this album… The real definition for Iconoclast, I guess, is: “when someone tears down the religion believes or religion symbols”, but there’s also a general definition, “when someone or something tears down the giving believe”, it can be a social believe or something. So we just have to look it like that the technology has torn down the way we used to do things, or the way we believed in our lives.
I wrote this 11 minutes song in one day, after we had discussed about this men-versus-machines -issue, and I was kind of moulding around with some of these textures and try to get a feel on what the record could be. After hearing the first couple of songs, I was definitely ispired on what this album could sound like. So I sat down and I just wrote this Iconoclast -song in a day or so, using all the keybord textures and guitar-layers, and then I sent it to Russell that very same day, and said: “Hey dude, check this out! I think this could be the sound of the record, everything feels really good”. And the first thing he said: “don’t change it, don’t touch it, that should be the first song on the record!” First I was against the idea, because it was too long, infact I thought that “The End of Innocence” should be the first song. But then after have given a second thought, I said: “yeah what the hell, so be it!” …you know, Iconoclast -song has also some orchestral and symphonic elements in it, similar to Paradise Lost, so to me it was a good transition from the last album to this one. So I kind of made it work out in my head to accept it, lol, but all of us at the end thought this is cool and the right song as the first track and as for the title.
You played the first shows of your 2011 tour in Stuttgart, Antwerp and in London, performing there 4 songs from Iconoclast. What was the reaction of your fans and critics?
Well, we tried to pick 4 songs that could be a little bit accessible on the first listen. No one had heard these songs, and we were, maybe not worried, but we were just hoping that everything’s gonna go over well, because we had never done that before, you know, playing some songs still from an unreleased album. So we rehearse the songs and got them into the set, so kind of tested the waters in those shows. Only two of these 4 songs seemed to go over well, that is: “The End of Innocence” and “Dehumanized”, for whatever reasons, but I think these two songs you just can really crash on one listen. And you know, there wasn’t a night that they didn’t go over. I remember the first night we did those 2 songs, people were headhanging, and in couple of next shows, after seeing the videos on youtube, they knew already the lyrics and sang along. That was awesome! And now that we’re touring here in the States we’re playing those two songs and they work out cool.
Let’s talk about the Album cover, made by the Illustrator and film concept artist Warren Flanagan… what can you tell me about it?
Well, Warren had made the cover art also for the last record, and he’s involved in the film industry, too. I’m also a bit movie fan. So, we always kind of relate on that level, you know, we always end up talking about movies. So, with the last record he made a great job, and I really didn’t have to say much to him, you know, he really understands what we’re doing! And this time it was the same thing. I talked with him maybe 15 minutes, telling him about this new records and its themes and then I sent him a couple of songs, and that was it! … you know, he has a lot of immagination and he’s a really talented guy. So he just started to come up with the imagines, and each one was cooler than the other one.
What are your personal expectations on this album?
Well of course we’d like our fans would like it. But I know they will. You know, we’re pretty critical on ourselves, working on these songs and putting in them all the effort and passion we have. And I think our fans and listeners can hear it on this album. My expectations are that it can be well received, and I’m sure it will be.
By the way, have you already thought about the first video for this album?
Well we’ve not really thought about it yet, we want to wait until the album comes out first and see what songs everybody like the most.
This month you’re touring in North America, next month in South America. But do you know already when you’ll come over to Europe?
You know, these tours what we’re doing right now, they’re not really Iconoclast-tours. But when the album comes out in June (17th), we’re going to rehearse well for couple of months and put together a real good set with lot of new songs, so I think we’ll set up a tour in Europe on September or on October. So that will be our first thing when the record is out. And I think that’s gonna be great! We’ve always a good time when we tour in Europe. And this time we’ll try to get also to the countries where we haven’t played yet or at least not so often, like e.g. the Scandinavia and Greece.
Michael, You’re known as a real guitar-bomber. Can you reveal me your secret?
LOL my secret? well, I don’t have really any secrets, but when I was young I just put a lot of time into it. And I always felt like that’s what I should be doing. It seemed so right for me. You know, when I was young, around 16-17 years, I practiced with the guitar my ass off, just learning all my favourite records. And when I grew up there were a lot of good guitar players around, you know, Randy Rhoads was one of my favourites, but also Yngwie Malmsteen, Eddie Van Halen and still so many others. I just loved all that stuff, I really did. But I liked also a lot of progressive bands, like Rush, and from the heavy metal bands I liked Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, all these bands and guitarists influenced me and what I would be today. I still love doing this, you know, you put all the time in practising, and try really to understand the theory of the music and to learn all the technics. But when it’s done, then it’s like breathing… And that’s what I like to think when I’m playing and writing new stuff, I don’t really practice any more, but I just use the guitar like a tool, like it was a part of me.
The last question… what are your greeting to your fans and to our readers?
Yeah, to our fans I’d like to say “thank you for being so patience! It takes a little bit time with these records, and as now we’re touring a lot so the space between the records is a bit longer. But we put a lot of ourselves into these records, everything we have, but we do it for our fans! So thank-you very much, and hope you’re gonna like Iconoclast!”
Michael thanks a lot for your time and for this interview! I do hope to see you soon on stage to kick ass! :-D
lol, thank you, Tarja, very very much! :D
Interview by Tarja Virmakari – Photos by Danny Sanchez
SYMPHONY X – Dehumanized (ICONOCLAST)