By Martin Popoff
Canadian keyboard-centric classic rockers Saga are back firing on all cylinders with Michael Sadler, the band’s beloved Freddie-Mercurial lead singer, reinstated in the ranks after only one record away.
And just as quickly, there’s an exhilarating, new album, “20/20,” giving the band’s current ambitious tour plans extra oomph.
So why did Sadler light off in the first place?
“To never see those bastards again,” laughs Sadler. “No, it was a life decision. There’s always rumors and conjecture and things like that. ‘He must’ve left because of musical differences or because there was a problem in the band with the members.’ It had nothing to do with that. It was purely my personal decision. I wanted to have a family, finally — I have a son and daughter of my own. I didn’t want to be on the road. I always really wanted to have a child, but I didn’t want to be on the road and have my wife call me and say, ‘He took his first step today,’ or, ‘He said his first words.’ You wait that long to have a child, and then you miss the importance of it. So I always said, ‘You know, I’m not gonna be touring and forced to be away from home.’ And the only way to do that was to leave. And it was 30 years. I thought it was the perfect time to do it. I kept a place in the back of my mind that if the time is right, and it made sense to everybody, that perhaps we would talk about me coming back. Didn’t know it would be that soon.”
And it was never a case of being satisfied that enough art had been generated under the fine Saga banner.
“My leaving was not about the music and that kind of thing. I was not done with the band per se; I was done with touring. So that meant leaving Saga at the time. But there’s way more I have artistically to do, and I will. I’ll probably do another solo record eventually, but right now, I’ve not tapped everything. The well’s not dry yet (laughs).”
Sadler’s return wasn’t based on a sense of finances or job security.
“It’s what I do,” Sadler says. “My wife said it best when the decision to come back took place. First of all, I said to the band, you gotta make sure that Rob (Moratti, vocalist on Saga’s ‘The Human Condition’ in 2009) knows that we’re talking about this. Because I don’t want him to just get a phone call and say, ‘Thanks a lot, Rob, you’re out; Michael’s back.’ That’s totally disrespectful. So make sure he’s in the loop before we decide, and most important, I discussed it with my family, with my wife, and I did it initially to be with my son the first couple of years, while he was growing up. And then we were talking about it, and she looked at me and said, ‘That’s who you are. That’s what you do; just do it. Whatever — whether you make a fortune or not make a fortune — this is what you do. And that’s the person I know, and that’s your makeup.’ Once I got the seal of approval from her (laughs), it was ‘Well, go make some money! (laughs).”
The making of “20/20” was an unfamiliar experience for Sadler.
“It’s weird, because I was brought in, not at the 11th hour, but when it was decided I was coming back, they had already written 95 percent of the album; 95 percent of music was all written, except for a solo here or there,” Sadler said. “So I was handed essentially a finished product, which is weird for me, because I was always involved with the songwriting in the past. But they had all this music, and I thought, ‘Oh, maybe that could’ve been five bars instead …” or “They should’ve …” whatever. So it was a whole new ballgame for me. Apparently, Rob had started very sketchy melodies on one or two very rough tracks. He wasn’t really far into it, so it was pretty much bare and left for me to do whatever I wanted on top of it.
“For a singer, that was really great in the studio, especially, having that as a soundtrack to sing to. Usually I’m singing something and going, ‘Well, eventually it’s going to sound like that or it’s going to sound like that. Wait ’til we get the solo in there; wait ’til we get that part; wait ’til we get the real drums,’ that kind of thing. I was listening to almost the finished album. It was like karaoke for me. It was really inspiring.”
Musically, “20/20” is full up with all of the keyboard and guitar acrobatics one would expect from Saga. Highlights for this writer are “Spin It Again” and especially “Show And Tell,” which sounds like heavy Steve Hackett, both vocally and melodically.
“I thought, this sounds — the word I’ve been using lately is vintage, if not old-fashioned — it sounds vintage Saga, 2012,” Sadler said. “I think the elements of what got people excited about the band in the beginning are there. And also, I mean, I got to listen to it as a punter, because I’m hearing the tracks fresh. Because usually, you’re there for the beginning, you get used to the track, and you get a certain … you don’t hear it anymore. It’s like trying to mix your own record. You should never mix your own record, because you’re way too close to it. I just did what I felt complemented the tracks that were there. On the other hand, it’s kind of scary, because it was the last thing to go on the record. So the onus was on me, and I had no feedback, because I was alone in California doing it.”
When asked for his proudest moments on the record lyrically, Sadler pauses to reflect.
“Funny thing is, I never really know going into it. It’s what comes out when I read it afterward, and then I discover. And when I read these ones afterward, and I was doing the transcription for the booklet, I realized that they’re fairly positive lyrics, about, like, ‘Pick yourself up and dust yourself off. You know, everyone has problems, but hey, and where’s that passion?’ It is trying to encourage people not to dwell on disappointment. OK, well, learn from your mistake and let’s get on with it — it’s a very hopeful record. My personal favorite is the ballad, simply because it’s personal experience, and it’s for anybody who’s ever been completely down and out and someone has come forward and helped them, without being requested and not expecting anything. And they do that to that extent, and it happened to me at one point in my life. And ‘Lost For Words,’ I mean, thank you’s just not enough. And the best way is in a song, to say it this way. So that’s a favorite, because it’s the most personal for me.”
Saga’s ‘20/20’ proudly upholds the tenets of the band’s signature Saga sound in a variety of ways.
“Those trade-offs between the guitar and Jim Gilmour, with the complex lines that they play together, it kind of goes back to the Weather Report days, where there’s violin and guitar playing the lines. So I think that maybe makes a difference,” Sadler said. “I mean, the rest of it, it’s, I don’t want to say standard, but they’re pad sounds and things of that nature. Perhaps the chords that we implement. But really, I think what makes it different is the dueling guitar/keyboard thing.”
However, Sadler hesitates to attach the “prog-rock” label to the band.
“I just think we’re a really good rock band with serious prog influences. But just, I don’t know, I wouldn’t put us in a prog category,” he said. “We probably are, because of the keyboards. Especially in the beginning, no one was using as much keyboards as we were, and all these innovative things, so in that respect, we are. But I think the difference is the rhythmic side of the band and the rock side of the band. We are a lot harder than the traditional prog bands.”
The album’s title, “20/20,” came about through a mix of serendipity and reality, Sadler said.
“I was trying to come up with a title, and I just thought, finally, ‘Why don’t we just call it 20? It’s the 20th studio album … Nice big 20; it’s a nice image. Then I took it one step further. My wife said, ‘Why don’t you make it 20/20? And I thought … and then the vision thing, and then 20/20 hindsight, learn from your mistakes, you draw on that, 20/20 foresight, the future. And then Daryl (keyboardist Jim “Daryl” Gilmour) coincidentally had problems with his eyes, and then I thought, ‘Well, that’s kind of … So it just made sense.”
The cover art has its own strange story.
“You can hire a graphics arts company and say, ‘We want this kind of thing, this kind of thing, show us what you can do,’ and spend thousands of dollars in development. One day, Dean, our guitar tech, just threw us this image. He said, ‘Just for fun I did this.’ He’d sent it to Jim Crichton and myself, and I remember we were looking for a cover at the time, ‘20/20,’ and we just went, ‘That’s it!’ And all he did was take a stock photo of that apparatus, and Photoshopped Einstein in there.”
And now, it’s time to tour. The band’s traditional base, Europe, is still going strong.
“Scandinavia is really bouncing back now, and a lot of territories are starting to open, really because of the record, apparently. Italy, Spain; we’re expanding in Europe. We’ve got to get back to the states. People always say, ‘Well, why aren’t you doing a lot of the states?’ And really, it comes down to touring. I mean, you know, why are we big in Germany? That’s because we pounded Germany in the beginning. That was the first market. We just pounded and pounded it because you go where the market is. And then we started going to the states when we had ‘Worlds Apart’ happening, and some airplay on AM radio, FM radio, whatever, Top 40. And we just ended up not going there anymore. Because the audience kind of dropped away after ‘Heads Or Tails,’ so we went where the market was, and we foolishly, probably, never revisited it, and concentrated our efforts on that. But we’d like to change that. We’re in the process of trying to do that, but it’s a big country (laughs). And at home, too; at one point people thought we were a German band here in Canada. Because every time they heard on the radio that we’re in Germany, or they heard Canada, they heard the word Germany, because we were always there. And I can’t really blame them. It’s about your presence, and we just weren’t here. A well-kept secret (laughs). For the last 35 years! (laughs).”