This is the second part of a two-part article. To read Spock’s Beard part 1, click here.
By Howard Whitman
Now a four-piece band, Spock’s Beard had one more question to deal with: Where were their new songs going to come from? The members had contributed to a few of Neal’s songs on past albums, but as the main source of new material, they were an untested commodity.
For D’Virgilio, stepping up to the writing plate was the fullfilment of a longtime ambition: “We all wanted to get more involved in the writing. I love Neal’s writing, but I wanted to have more of a role.”
All four members would contribute to the composing for the new album, and they brought in some help – old friends and musical associates John Boegehold and Stan Ausmus.
As recording got underway, a new Spock’s Beard sound started emerging. In addition to a new voice, guitars started to play a more prominent role.
“It was more of a regular rock record,” Alan Morse said. “It wasn’t quite as progressive as our previous things. For a while there, we felt like we wanted to go more mainstream to bring in some more people.”
The end result, 2003 release “Feel Euphoria,” was a different kind of Spock’s record – more aggressive and varied, still prog but far removed from the band that made “Snow.”
Fan reaction was, expectedly, mixed. Loyal followers were glad the band was carrying on, but Neal Morse was missed.
“Some people dug it,” D’Virgilio said. “I got letters from fans where they thought it was the greatest thing ever. A lot of people didn’t like it at all because it wasn’t Neal. Everybody universally liked the fact that we were keeping going with the band.”
When it came time to tour, the band once again followed the Genesis pattern, they hired a second drummer, Jimmy Keegan, to free up D’Virgilio so he could front the band.
“I’ve known Jimmy for a lot of years,” D’Virgilio stated. “I knew what he could do – how he played, how he could sing – that was a pretty easy choice, because he just came in and understood it all.”
The subsequent tour saw the introduction of nightly drum duels between D’Virgilio and Keegan, which would quickly become a crowd favorite at Spock’s shows to this day.
The band was content. “While Feel Euphoria” sold less than “Snow,” it established Spock’s Beard as a band with a future. “We knew that we could keep going,” D’Virgilio said. “We knew we could make quality music, so we wanted to keep going. InsideOut was still supporting us.”
Carry on they did. Two further albums followed – “Octane” in 2005 and “Spock’s Beard” in 2006. Both found Spock’s Beard embracing a variety of styles. While half of “Octane” was devoted to “A Flash Before My Eyes,” a mini prog-opera, the CD also had a strong rock element, and a fusiony instrumental called “NYC.”
Spock’s Beard mixed it up even more. One song, a straight-ahead rocker called “Is This Love”, became the target of strong criticism. “(The reaction) almost went beyond hate,” Meros said. “I totally dig that song,” D’Virgilio stated. “I love the way the band sounds playing that kind of music. The prog heads didn’t like it much at all, because they thought we were trying to sound like Cheap Trick or something, but I was just going with my influence.”
Another track that got a mixed reaction was “Sometimes They Stay, Sometimes They Go,” the first Spock’s Beard song to feature an Alan Morse lead vocal.
“They either hated or ignored it – they pretended it didn’t exist,” Meros said. “Honestly I think that is one of the strongest songs on the record.”
If Spock’s Beard had a problem, it was, according to Meros, too much variety: “There are about two or three songs that should not have been on the record. Looking back, it was like, ‘We have room for them on the CD, and they’re really well-written songs, well-performed. If somebody doesn’t like it, that’s what the skip button is for.’”
Criticism aside, the two CDs proved D’Virgilio had fully settled into his lead singer role, and the band’s post-Neal songwriting improved with every release.
The band still had momentum. But it would be four years before Spock’s Beard made another album.
Their Names Escape
Why the long wait between Spock’s Beard and the recently released “X”? A few factors contributed to the break.
Changes at InsideOut coincided with the fulfillment of the band’s three-CD record deal, and the members weren’t convinced re-signing with the label was the best plan.
“We just wanted to get out,” D’Virgilio said. “Also, I think at that point we were all just tired and needed a bit of an hiatus. That’s why this record turned out as well as it did, because we actually did take the time to breathe.”
Even if Spock’s Beard was on hold, the members weren’t idle. D’Virgilio resumed his side job as touring drummer for Tears for Fears, and then relocated for a steady gig with a Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil production. Okumoto worked with prog bands GPS and K2, played in a top-40 lounge band in Las Vegas and then returned to his native Japan. Alan Morse released an instrumental solo album, “Four O’Clock & Hysteria,” in 2007, and focused on the electronics company he owns, DynaMetric Inc. Meros, who toured with a modern-day version of Eric Burdon & The Animals from 1990 to 2005, played in cover bands with veterans of The Tubes, Enchant and Iron Butterfly.
“There were some really big life distractions,” Meros stated. “We pretty much just let things idle for a while, and all of the sudden it was, ‘Man, we haven’t done something for quite some time, so we better just do it now or never.’”
All four members had been writing material on their own, but the big question was how they would get an album made with no record company support. Ultimately, the band chose to seek financing from fans through pre-orders of the CD.
“We didn’t really want to self-finance it,” Alan Morse said. “Other people had been doing the (fan-financing) sort of thing, Marillion and some others. We didn’t know if it would work, but we figured it was worth a try.”
But work it did. The response was tremendous, in no small part due to the band’s creative approach to this effort. Previous self-financed albums have seen artists thank fans for their support in the CD booklet, but Spock’s Beard took it one step further – by incorporating fan names into the lyrics of an actual song on the CD!
As conceived by Meros and Boegehold, fans were offered an ultra package that included, along with a T-shirt and autographed CD, the inclusion of their name on the disc itself.
A great, innovative idea, but the execution proved challenging. “We thought maybe 30, 40, 50 people would do this – and 130 people signed up for it,” Meros recalled. Now committed to this plan, the band had to come up with a song to go with the names. They considered doing a novelty song such as, in Meros’s words, “a prog polka,” until Boegehold came up with a working concept for the track, “Their Names Escape Me.”
Meros recalled, “John made up this story about these people who rose up against the government. This guy destroyed all the evidence but he has a photographic memory and all these names are still in his head. They’ve got him in this cell and and they’re trying to extract all of this information with these people’s names.” The names in his head, revealed in the lyrics, were the band’s patrons, and each one had to be multi-tracked by D’Virgilio for their inclusion in the recording.
The end result is spectacular, and a good reason to order the limited edition CD, as “Their Names …” is not included on the retail version of “X” through an agreement the band recently signed with Netherlands-based Mascot Records, a label Steve Lukather and Joe Satriani also call home.
One of the most remarkable things about “X” is how unified and consistent it sounds. It was recorded as many bands do these days, mostly at the band members’ home studios. Then it was assembled by master mixer Rich Mouser. D’Virgilio did his vocals mostly in his home studio, and Meros did the same to record his bass. But the combination of sharp songwriting (much of it by Meros and Boegehold), a return to the band’s classic prog sound, Mouser’s powerful mix, and superb performances by all has resulted in v2.0’s finest CD yet, easily the best Spock’s Beard product since “Snow.” And the fans have been vocal in their praise.
“It’s really weird – people on the Internet are making up all these reasons why they think this album is so much better than the other ones,” Meros said. “There is no tangible reason. It’s the same dudes playing the same instruments. We recorded at the same studio with the same writers. I think all of us really learned a lesson with Spock’s Beard: You can’t throw the kitchen sink onto your CD. We got a little bit less all-inclusive and a little bit more self-producing.”
For Spock’s Beard, the immediate future looks bright. An excellent, well-received new CD. A new record label pledging to give the group a strong promotional push. But what is the long-range plan for the band?
As far as touring goes, it ultimately comes down to economics. A Spock’s Beard show is not a cheap undertaking: “We’ve got two drum sets and three million keyboards,” Meros said, “and we need 50 channels live.” The band is a good draw in major markets such as L.A. and New York, but has a harder time in rural areas where they’re less well-known.
More American shows could be a possibility, however, if sales are strong for “X.” “If the record starts taking off and instead of 30,000 we’re selling 80,000, that means we can tour in the States,” Meros said.
It could happen. Alan Morse sees a younger generation of Americans getting into prog: “I always love it when you see kids out there. We’ve done some gigs where it’s 12-year-old dudes in the front just rocking out. I get e-mails from little kids – 7 or 8 years old.”
Whatever happens, he doesn’t foresee Spock’s Beard ending any time soon: “As long as people keep buying (the CDs) and we’ve got fans to play to, I’m not ready to quit and I don’t think anybody else is.”
Part I of this article ran online earlier this month. You can read the article in its entirety in the November 5, 2010 print edition of Goldmine. In the meantime, sign up to win a Spock’s Beard ‘X’ fan package in our Goldmine Giveaway by clicking here!
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