By Michael Popke
Erik Norlander, a modern-day Moog wizard, owes his keyboard roots to Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman and John Lord. As a songwriter and producer, he takes inspiration from Roger Waters, Ian Anderson and the late Eric Woolfson – helming solo projects as well as albums by his band, Rocket Scientists, and his wife, Lana Lane. So it’s no surprise that Norlander’s chosen genre is progressive rock.
And what could be more proggy than a 79-minute CD stuffed with 10 instrumental works from Norlander’s vast catalog, re-recorded using an arsenal of analog synthesizers – including six Moogs and a Hammond organ – plus a Steinway grand piano? Norlander also invited such skilled session players as Nick LePar, Freddy DeMarco and Mark Matthews (guys he dubbed “The Galactic Collective”) to create a rich, dramatic and highly listenable new album of the same name.
As a result, The Galactic Collective serves as an introduction for newcomers and a generous diversion for longtime fans. The outfit also was the first artist announced to perform at the 2011 Rites of Spring Festival in Gettysburg, Pa. – one of the nation’s premier prog events – and Norlander recently gave a presentation at Moogfest 2010 in Asheville, N.C., called “The Power of Modular Synthesis.”
Norlander, 43, also plays keys in Asia Featuring John Payne, an offshoot of the original band with vocalist/bassist Payne, who admirably filled John Wetton’s role for years.
Despite his prog pedigree, Norlander is one of the U.S. scene’s most personable and well-rounded players, and he’s not ashamed to admit he’s a Lady Gaga fan. “You may laugh, but I think she is just fantastic,” Norlander told Goldmine.
“There’s classical and jazz music that I love, as well. All of that goes to shape what I do. One should never stop learning and definitely not stop listening.”
Why did you decide to re-record some of your songs?
Erik Norlander: The Galactic Collective is a re-imagining of my best instrumental compositions written for my solo albums; for my band, Rocket Scientists; and for my wife, Lana Lane. It would have been easy to put out a CD called something like Erik Norlander’s Best Instrumentals using the original recordings, but that hypothetical album would not have nearly the same congruity and cohesiveness as a new, single recording session and a unified production. All of those songs were, of course, written for specific albums, and each original recording reflects the mood and spirit of its associated album. Now, with The Galactic Collective, I have taken all of these great songs and recorded them again with a singular focus. I have played these songs live over the years in my solo concerts — either with a backing band or completely solo, just me and a bunch of keyboards — and those shows have always gone over very well. Until now there has not been a representation of those great sets.
There are some fantastic players on the album. How did you determine the lineup?
EN: I met Nick LePar (drums) and Mark Matthews (bass) through a friend in Ohio named Dena Henry, who promoted some great shows for me there, both solo and with Rocket Scientists. I had wanted to record an album like The Galactic Collective for some time, and I also wanted to find some American musicians in the Northeast or the North Coast that could play live dates with me in that part of the country and in Eastern Canada. These guys fit the bill perfectly.
We worked with a couple of other guitarists, but it was Mark Matthews who recommended Freddy DeMarco to me, and Freddy ultimately got the job. Freddy is a tremendously versatile player, and that’s really critical for this band. The interesting thing about the guitar role is that while this is keyboard-oriented music, the guitar parts are very specific, and they range from acoustic to blues to metal depending on the song. So to have someone like Freddy, who is a master of tones and styles, is really essential.
And finally, the most important qualification for all three of these guys is that they are all gentlemen and very together personally as well as professionally. I insist on that nowadays. There’s no room for drama anywhere except in the music.
What will be included on The Galactic Collective’s companion DVD?
EN: We filmed the entire album’s recording with the plan to put that out on DVD. There are videos up on YouTube. I also sat down for some extensive interviews, so there will be those along with all of the songs played live in the studio with the band. We also recorded the release party concert in Cleveland, Ohio, and so we’ll have some songs on the DVD from that show, as well — including one that isn’t on the studio album, a great version of “Sunset Prelude,” which had actually never been played live before that night.
Tell me about your experience at Moogus Operandi in May…
EN: The Moogus Operandi event was a phenomenal show. This was a concert in Asheville, N.C., to benefit The Bob Moog Foundation (www.moogfoundation.org). I had played a similar concert in 2009 with Keith Emerson to open a Bob Moog museum exhibit in Southern California. That went so well that we wanted to raise the bar a bit for the Asheville show. We shipped my modular Moog synthesizer, aka “The Wall of Doom,” out from California to North Carolina especially for the show. I spent a week in Asheville at a beautiful place called Echo Mountain Studios working with 12 local musicians. We had African percussionists, strings, vocalists, even a banjo player. My wife, Lana Lane, joined us as one of the vocalists, and we played a killer version of her song “Queen of the Ocean” there along with the music from The Galactic Collective. All of the musicians played so well and everyone integrated into my music seamlessly, even when we tried some rather adventurous arrangements. After the week in Asheville, I really didn’t want to leave!
Do you consider yourself a Moog collector?
EN: I am, without a doubt, most definitely a Moog collector! I have the modular Moog system from 1967 (“The Wall of Doom”) that I started building in 1995. It started making music in 1999 and is still going strong. I currently have three Minimoog Model D synths (the ’70s model), a Moog Rogue, Moog Taurus I pedals, a Moog Voyager and a case full of Moogerfooger effects pedals. And the best part about it is that I really use these instruments all the time. They’re not just up on a display shelf gathering dust.
Is the Moog ripe for a comeback in pop culture — or has it never really gone away?
EN: It’s never really gone away. Sure, analog synths took a dip in popularity in the ’80s when digital synths became common, but nothing will recreate what a Moog synthesizer sounds like other than a Moog synthesizer. Just like the Stradivarius violin is a classic instrument, just like the Gibson Les Paul is a classic instrument, so is the Moog synthesizer a classic instrument. All of these are timeless, and I expect all of these will be highly desired iconic instruments for centuries to come.
Do you collect albums or other music-related items?
EN: I do still listen to vinyl, and I think it is such a unique medium. I grew up with it, and it has a depth that digital recordings don’t have. I think it’s the analog noise floor that makes the difference. With digital, the sound drops to a quantified, quantized stop. You can hear the end, the bottom, the finish of the sound, and it’s often rather abrupt, especially with 16-bit systems like the compact disc. Analog recordings are infinite. The sound eventually fades out into the noise floor, kind of a wind of infinity that keeps your imagination going. You don’t really hear the finite end to the sound like you do with digital. That’s a big deal to me.
As for collecting, well, I have my LP collection, of course, and I also collect vintage recording equipment such as preamps, microphones, equalizers and compressors that I use in my recordings. I also have assembled a 5.1 Surround Sound home theater system using all vintage McIntosh amplifiers and ESS speakers from the ’70s — the big pyramid-shaped ones with the electrostatic tweeters. That stuff sounds so amazing, analog and audiophile in the best sense of the words.
What is the greatest challenge of being a U.S.-based prog artist with a majority of your fan base overseas?
EN: I think the greatest challenge of promoting my music in Europe, Russia and Japan is the distance to those places. Touring is, of course, an issue because of the cost of plane travel, of getting the equipment over there and then getting around while in those places. But I have managed to park some important keyboards in strategic places around the world, so every time I go there I have at least some resources already waiting for me.
I also have made some great friends in many countries over the years, and there’s nothing like having some local friends around to help you with everything from driving to the radio station to even getting to the grocery store. Another issue with working overseas is the promotion and distribution of my music. It’s so important to stay in touch with the magazines, the radio stations, the venues and all the businesspeople I work with. The time-zone differences and the distance make that a challenge sometimes. It’s a lot easier to fly from Sacramento to Milwaukee to do promotion than it is to go to Tokyo.
Why, in the downloading era, do you still (and admirably, I might add) place so much emphasis on CD packaging — with imaginative artwork, detailed liner-note essays and lots of photos all wrapped in thick, colorful booklets?
EN: I loved albums growing up, especially albums with big gatefolds and inserts. I would read every lyric, every liner note, every credit. I would study the artwork while listening to the albums. It was all part of the experience. When CDs came out, so much of that began to fade away. You’d have these simple one-page inserts, and the artwork would be shrunken down to a shadow of its former self.
I learned early on that you could, in fact, make a 32-page booklet that would fit inside a jewel case. You could write four pages of liner notes. You could include lots of color photos, all the lyrics and detailed credits. It was just a matter of cost. But I’ve never been in this business to get rich; I’ve always been in it for the artistry of it, the love of music and all that goes with it. So to spend another dollar or two on each CD has always been a worthwhile thing to do for me, and I don’t blink when it comes time to make the decision. This is supposed to be art, after all! One day I may experiment with some lower-cost digipak recyclable-type releases, but even those would be done artistically. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
How did the Asia Featuring John Payne gig come about? Have you worked with Payne in the past?
EN: I met John Payne in 1997 when my band, Rocket Scientists, played a festival in Bruchsal, Germany, along with Asia. We all stayed at the same hotel, so we met each other at breakfast and backstage during the gig. John seemed like a very nice chap and an amazing vocalist. Then, 10 years later, I got an e-mail from John saying that he had split with Geoff Downes, who had gone to reform the original lineup of Asia, but that John still wanted to continue with his version of the band. It was really as simple as John saying, “Everyone tells me you’re the keyboardist I need. Do you want the job?” And that was it. No auditions, no long back-and-forths, no managers or lawyers; just a simple invitation. I phoned up John, who was in England at the time, and we had a nice chat. I agreed to join the band, and I’ve been working with him ever since. It’s going on four years now!
As the keyboard player in Asia Featuring John Payne, do you feel pressure to live up to Downes’ legacy?
EN: I don’t feel that pressure, as I am confident in my playing and programming skills. But I do feel the obligation to live up to my role as the keyboardist in a very established and iconic band. It’s a big job, and it requires total commitment. There’s no way to “blues your way through it.” You must get every part exactly right, every sound dialed in just perfectly, or else it will be a disappointment to the audience, to the band and to me. So I have really worked hard to continue the “prog-rock keyboardist” legacy.
I think Geoff Downes is a fantastic keyboardist, and it’s great to play those parts and come up with all of those excellent sounds. Just before joining Asia Featuring John Payne, I coincidentally recorded a covers album called Hommage Symphonique, where I created my own interpretations of my favorite classic prog songs — tracks from ELP, Yes, Rick Wakeman, Jethro Tull, Procol Harum, King Crimson. So it was great timing to join John Payne’s band right after that. Of course, for me, all of the Asia songs are technically covers, so I treat them the same way as the songs I recorded on Hommage Symphonique, with lots of care and lots of class.
Has the band’s name created confusion among casual fans who don’t know Asia’s recent history?
EN: I think the fans know the story pretty well, and I have encountered very little ambiguity. I do get the occasional request to sign the first Asia LP, and I always tell the person, “You know I’m not on this, OK?” And they always get it. One person asked me at a gig if I was Geoff Downes, to which I replied “No, he’s a little shorter than me, and his diction is much better than mine, coming from the UK and all.” There are, of course, also a lot of people who have no idea who is in the band — either now or 25 years ago — and they don’t care. They just want to hear the hits. OK, that’s fine, too.
What is the status of a new Asia Featuring John Payne album?
EN: John Payne and I have written the entire new album and recorded most of it. I am really proud of the work we have done. There are some fantastic songs. John and I write together very easily. It’s been a great partnership. We also have a live album already in the can that will be released simultaneously with the new studio album. So that’s exciting.
And what’s next for you?
EN: I shall carry on with my solo work, both touring and recording with the guys from The Galactic Collective, and I look forward to more projects with Lana Lane and Rocket Scientists. I am also sitting on tons of live material from 10 years of touring that I hope to compile into various releases and get out there one day. There’s a lot to look forward to…