Some of you may remember James Byrd from his days as a founding member of Fifth Angel. James is currently fronting the band Byrd which also features Michael Flatters on Vocals who is also part of Takara and Brian Hutchison on Piano, Drums, and Bass. I chatted with James about his great new album 'Anthem' as well as a few other things. I hope you enjoy the read!
Heavy Metal Resource: Hi James! I appreciate you taking the time to chat. The new album is excellent!
James Byrd: Hi Dave, my pleasure, I'm so glad you like 'Anthem'!
HMR: Let's get started by looking at the new album. The last album 'Flying beyond the 9' did well. How did you prepare the new album 'Anthem' to build on the success??
J B: Well, with 'flying beyond the 9' I knew I had found a way of composing and producing that I wanted to continue with in terms of instrumentation and production values. I have a very broad set of musical tastes which I think my entire recording career back to 1983 tends to reflect. While this is good from an artistic view point for me, it can make it hard for people to put a label on you and then fit you into a category. People seem to like to do this. Personally, I always feel it's a trap. I don't want to make an album that sounds like Fifth Angel, I've been there and done that and there's be no artistic challenge for me in it. Nothing against it, it was valid in the context of being an honest passionate record at a point in time. But over the years I've delved into many different approaches to making albums from different musical perspectives and as I said, there's a lot of ground covered between albums. I came to feel with 'flying beyond the 9' that by approaching my music from a composer's point of view and not from a "guitar player's" point of view, that if I had a full arsenal of symphonic sounds at my disposal, I could then "unify" the production of diverse approaches and create a cohesiveness that would make it easier for listeners to latch onto a common thread. Of course you can never please everyone. In the past, I've had a couple of reviewers who said and I paraphrase here- in so many words "well what happened to what you were doing? This seems like yet another change of direction Mr. Byrd, why?". Likewise, now that I am taking a symphonic approach to my production with deliberate choices of instrumentation to bring together the production values between tracks, once in a while a critic will say that there's a "sameness" to all the music. Well, I don't decide to do something based on the opinions of one or two critics. And from a musical perspective, the tracks on both 'flying beyond the 9' and also on 'Anthem' are very diverse from one another from a writing perspective. I chose the piano out of the many instruments used throughout both albums- as a unifying production value so that I could hopefully enable the listener to focus on the actual content of the compositions rather than on great leaps in production values that sometimes distract a listener. So if I have a philosophy now, it is that what I am doing these days is bringing all possibilities musically under the broadest and most open format I can have as a writer/producer, and this would is the liberal use of symphonic instrumentation to put forward ideas. Most people "get it", but for me the beauty in it is that I now have a frame work to work "within" and it does not feel confining because there are so many possibilities to explore.
HMR: I understand that you had started writing this album but due to the events of 9/11, you shifted gears a bit.
J B: Yes, a total "shift of gears". I had more than half of the music written for my follow-up to 'flying beyond the 9' before the September 11th atrocities in N.Y.C. When the attack happened, I found that I couldn't continue working on the album. I would come to the studio and look at the words and music and just draw a blank. I felt nothing for what I had begun. After two and a half months of this seeming "writer's block" for continuing with the songs, I decided to scrap the whole thing and start all over again. It wasn't "writer's block", I've never actually had that. It was a question of the fact that I had begun writing an album from a certain psychological perspective, and the events of September 11th completely destroyed that perspective. My mood became paranoid, angry, depressed, outraged, frustrated, probably all of the same feelings everyone else was feeling. So in starting again, although the album was emotionally very difficult to make, there was no further feeling of inability to connect with the music once I acknowledged my need as an artist to deal with it. The emotional difficulty was only in trying to address these events and my feelings about them without sinking into a sense of futility and sadness which overwhelmed the rest of my life. I was also still suffering from a physical injury which had landed me first in the hospital and then a wheelchair through the spring of 2001 a spinal injury-. I couldn't actually even play my guitar until just a few weeks before the recording of 'Anthem' was completed. I'm pretty much recovered now, but in addition to having my perspective changed by September 11th, my whole life then seemed upside down and painful. One of the songs is a thank you to my girl friend for getting me through some real hell "thank you"-. I'm proud of 'Anthem' but I hope I never have to make it again if you know what I mean.
HMR: Yeah, It has been a bit of a tough time to figure out. The album does come across very well. I was kind of curious about something. Although you classify yourself as Progressive Symphonic Metal what sets you apart in your opinion from other artists who claim the same style??
J B: I couldn't tell you that to be honest. With the last album, reviewers were comparing what I'm doing to some bands I've never heard like "Rhapsody?" for example-. Of course I know Uli Roth and he sent me his "prelude to the symphonic legends" CD when he finished it, but I wouldn't say that anything in particular is a direct influence on me. I'm pretty much detached from what the world is up to musically and am in a world of my own. My only influences as such are rooted in the 1970's for the most part with a love for bands like Queen, Styx, Rainbow, and also for song writers like Elton John and Andrew Lloyd Webber. I used to listen to music seven or eight hours a day as a teenager, now I'm lucky if I listen to music for 10 minutes a year. I suppose it's like not wanting to take your work home at the end of the day. After 10 hours working on string arrangements or listening intently to a vocal performance while producing, the only thing I want to hear at the end of the day is silence. As I said, people always want to put you into a box with a label on it, but really, what I do is so potentially complex and the influences are so diverse, everyone is going to come up with a different box, or a similar box that probably has little basis in actual reality.
HMR: I feel you really have your own musical identity. This album is totally different than somebody like Rhapsody. It's in the structure of the music that this comes out. Listening to the album, you really notice the emotion throughout. You also have really created music that is almost like a production. Very rich and dimensional. Talk a bit about the songwriting on this new album. It's kind of the same as your previous release 'Flying beyond the 9' yet different at the same time.
J B: Ahh you have ears! Yes and yes. As I was saying, "production" values are the unifying factor, but not actually the construction or choices made in the songs. The songs on 'flying' were all very different from one another but there certainly is a perspective on that album. And again, the songs on 'Anthem' are all very different from one another and it has it's own perspective across the board which is decidedly different than 'flying beyond the 9'. I'm very happy that this is noticed here because it's entirely accurate and fulfills what to me, should be accomplished when I write and produce an album. I think that 'Anthem' is tinged with a darkness and passion in places which 'flying beyond the 9' was very different in. It's much more direct than 'flying' in terms of it's subject matter being far less metaphorical and distant and 'Anthem' deals with easily identifiable current themes. From a performance perspective, I think it's "looser". Not in a literal way, but in terms of it's approach being less self-conscious and more willing to not only take chances, but in the actual feelings I had while performing. There were times on this album that I actually had tears in my eyes while playing and it doesn't get any deeper than this for me.
HMR: That's really cool. As I said before, the emotion really comes across well. What are your favorite tracks on this album and why??
J B: It's tough to pick one favorite but for me "The Price of War" is probably it. I don't think that as a composition, it can even be categorized. I mean what is it? It's certainly nothing resembling "rock and roll" is it. It seems to just be such a dynamic and "unregulated" bit of personal expression that I find it compelling. I also like the fact that it puts forward a story that is not my own, but someone else's. I'm more interested in a story as seen through someone else's eyes than one seen through my own eyes because I'm not a mystery to myself. I really found myself having a vision through someone else's eyes when I wrote it and it was a vision that seemed overwhelming to me. I mean really, how many of us can comprehend the idea of wielding that kind of military power and responsibility over life and death in such a surreal setting? My other favorite is "Only Love". When venturing into the darkness and passion of this album, I came to a point where I needed to find a philosophical "end" for lack of a better term. In other words, how does this story end if it does? We don't know what the end is do we. We're told that this "war on terrorism" will forever be in our lives. What then is the only conclusion one person can come to which doesn't lead to total hopelessness? "Only Love" was what came to me. Politics change, events change, leaders change, even nations change. Only love offered any certain hope when I thought about it all. None of us can "save the world", it's going where it's going and there's no individual control over this. But "love" can save us individually from hopelessness and in looking at human "solutions" to what ails us, I found nothing to be optimistic about in terms of human history and the future. God that sounds "preachy" when I say it here but I do believe it's true anyway. I was so happy to be able to end the album by emerging from darkness with this song.
HMR: Talk a bit about your influences. To me some are obvious, but it's always interesting to hear them from the artist.
J B: Oh man, everyone who I thought and still think- was good! Hendrix, Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush, Deep Purple/Ritchie Blackmore, Queen, Styx, Pink Floyd, U.F.O., Scorpians/Uli Roth, Al DiMeola, even Elton John and other artists who're not considered hard rock or metal. I studied blues guitarists, fusion guitarists, rock guitarists, classical guitarists, Violinists, Pianists, but more importantly, I liked great songs with big productions. I remember the first time I heard "funeral for a friend" by Elton John. This song probably had as profound an influence on my musical vision as anything I've heard. There were others as well; Phil Spector, particularly "river deep and mountain high", and other Motown from the mid 1960's. I've always been drawn to the "grandiose" musically. When I was 2 years old I would literally go crazy and run through the house jumping over the furniture when my parents would play the 1812 overture and I would beg them to play it again and again. To me "power" in music doesn't reside in playing a guitar with a lot of distortion and bashing cymbals but in the dynamics. I've listened to a lot of classical music over the years to try to understand how to voice and compose music that is "larger than life".
HMR: Talk a bit about the band. How did it all come together??
J B: I met Brian in a Guitar Center. He knew a friend of mine and he came up to me and introduced himself. We talked about our music and I asked him if he had a tape and he gave one to me. After that I invited him over and we hung out, listened to each other's music and talked. He was the right guy at the right time and he said he wanted to work for me on my albums. I met Michael Flatters through a vocalist named Steve Benito who recommended him to me. I called him on the phone and he knew who I was and we played each other some recent tapes we had. I needed a vocalist and he was perfect.
HMR: Some may be unaware of your days with Fifth Angel. Explain this time era a little.
J B: Well, that was a band I decided to assemble in 1982 while living in L.A. . I had heard the singer and the drummer in a cover band here in Seattle before I left and I was disillusioned by the scene in L.A. which seemed very contrived and "show-business" oriented as opposed to music oriented- to me. So I came back to Seattle and got a hold of them and put forward a plan that was loosely based on the success of Queensryche; Write, rehearse, record an album quality four song demo and shop it to labels. Now this might not sound very revolutionary, but before they seemingly came out of nowhere in Seattle, my own perspective was no different than most 22 year old "wanna be rockstars"; I thought you played bars/clubs and hoped to be "discovered". In "he real world"of trying to pay rent, one only has a certain amount of time an energy to direct at success in something else like music-, so what dawned on me then, was that there was a smarter way to be "discovered" than burning yourself out playing other people's music in bars, and Queensryche had shown it to me. So I told these guys that I intended to pursue a recording contract through writing, rehearsing, and then recording and it was just sort of pursued by me with a certainty that compelled the people around me come along. Apart from a very nasty series of events based on personal greed which destroyed the original line-up after we achieved the goal, as a "business plan", it's now the accepted and usual way that artists and bands arrive at the ability to release albums which reflect their own musical directions as opposed to what labels foist on musicians.
HMR: What kind of touring can we expect for 'Anthem'??
J B: I don't have any tour plans in the near future. While there is definitely a market for what I'm doing, it's a very globally spread-out market. The internet has finally made it possible to reach fans globally and generate enough sales without going bankrupt to sustain the production of music. The only way to tour these days without going bankrupt, is to take the "loan" from the label to do it in the hope that you're the next Britney Spears and can pay it back in sales. That's not me is it. I'm also not even contractually tied to a label under a "recording contract". This is quite intentional due to recent changes in intellectual property laws that were put into effect by lobbyists from the major labels. If one writes anything while under a "recording contract" now, the label owns it "forever". In other words, copyright no longer reverts back to the author after 28 years. There is absolutely no way I will sacrifice my "children" my songs- on the alter of this kind of corporate oppression. I license one album at a time to retain control over my publishing and rights and also creative freedom and have done so since 1997. Once you accept the "loan" under a recording contract, you're not on your own path, but the path of those who control everything. A shorter answer is that it's just not 1985 any more in any aspect of the industry.
HMR: Lion Music is handling this release as they did with 'Flying beyond the 9'. How widespread will distribution be and where can fans expect to get the release??
J B: I think they did an outstanding job with my last album. It was the first real promotion and meaningful visibility I've had since my Fifth Angel days and it's begun to reverse what I believe to be a lot of damage done to my sales by Shrapnel Records. I have only a three page agreement with Lion Music and an understanding that is very mutual. So both the label and I have the same goal and only mutually satisfying performances on both of our parts set the continuance of our relationship between albums. To me, this is how it ought to be. A contract is not only worthless in the absence of good faith, but detrimental, and with good faith, things go very well indeed. They've been great to me and in return, I have busted my butt to make the best albums humanly possible with no effort spared. So based on the way things went with the last album, I can only assume that 'Anthem' will hopefully see similar treatment by the label and that's been very good as far as I'm concerned.
HMR: On a finishing note do you have any parting thoughts for your fans??
J B: To all those who enjoyed 'flying beyond the 9', I hope that I'll meet your expectations with 'Anthem' and thank you to those of you who've given me your very loyal support over the years. I can't really do this without you.
HMR: Thanks once again James. We'll have to do it again sometime!
J B: Thank you Dave, it's been my pleasure.