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InterviewsEdensong interview with guitarist and vocalist James Byron Schoen

Posted on Saturday, December 17 2016 @ 09:33:23 CST by Steven Reid
Progressive Rock

With their third album, Years In The Garden Of Years, New York based progressive rockers Edensong have not only grown and evolved as a band, but, without the fanfare they deserve, quietly released one of the most rewarding progressive albums of 2016. With a solid line-up now in place and an ever growing live reputation through a string of acclaimed festival appearances, it feels like this is a band on the cusp of breaking through into the prog big leagues. With Edensong having a history almost as compelling as their music, Sea of Tranquility's Steven Reid spoke with founder member, guitarist and vocalist James Byron Schoen about his years in the world of Edensong…

Seeing as this is the first time Sea of Tranquility has caught up with Edensong, can we go back and cover some of the band's history please… The evolution of Edensong is quite a convoluted story. Take us back to 2002, how did the band first came together?

Quite convoluted indeed! If you don't mind, let's go back even a little further to when I think the seeds for Edensong were first planted. Tony (drums), TD (bass) and I go all the way back to high school, when we played together in a Long Island progressive metal band called Echoes of Eden. Back then we were listening to a lot of Metallica, Rush and Dream Theater and really starting to hone our collaborative writing chops. We recorded an album called 'Beneath the Tide' (featuring the song of the same name that's been a staple of Edensong's live show over the years), started writing and recording demos for an ambitious follow up concept album but then we ended up disbanding and heading off to different colleges before we had the opportunity to record it.

Jump ahead to 2002, when I was a sophomore at Wesleyan….I was missing the experience of playing in a band and was determined to revive the Echoes of Eden catalog with a more orchestral bent, taking advantage of the wealth of varied musical talent on campus. I formed Edensong with drummer Matt Cozin, a fellow student whom I had met at a Dream Theater concert. At the time, Matt and I were the mainstays of the lineup while the other personnel shifted around considerably. I wrote much of the material from 'The Fruit Fallen' around this time, and we managed to put on a pretty crazy and lavishly self-indulgent rock opera featuring a lot of that music (plus the old re-worked EoE material). We played a small handful of live shows, some successful, some extremely unsuccessful (a gig at a seedy downtown NYC strip club comes to mind) but this lineup crumbled as well once we graduated from school and all went our separate ways. I think the Edensong from this period helped to lay a great foundation for things to come, and some really nice music came out of this time, but there was never enough forward momentum to keep everyone engaged in the project.

Did the band record any material or demos at that stage?

Actually, almost the entire debut album 'The Fruit Fallen' was recorded during this time with this lineup. We technically started recording the album over the summer of 2004 (between my junior and senior years), but some earlier crappy demos of some of the songs exist somewhere… probably? I have some footage of us playing a few shows in and around campus – including the infamous rock opera – though these are all fairly embarrassing haha. Much of 'The Fruit Fallen' – the part that was completed while I was still a student – was submitted as my senior thesis and I wrapped up work on the rest of the album in the years following college. It was a learning process throughout – my first big recording project as producer/engineer! – so it took quite a bit longer than I would have liked!

The lineup of Edensong was pretty fluid right up until 2009. Aside from Matt on drums, the other positions would change very frequently, sometimes multiple times a year. I'd say the "college years" lineup lasted until 2006, when it became evident that there wasn't enough group commitment to the project to move forward with touring plans etc. I then shifted my focus to finishing 'The Fruit Fallen' on my own and we didn't really have a true band lineup again until 2008 when I started working with Stefan (keys) and Barry (flute), which then solidified in 2009 when Tony and TD joined. It hasn't changed much since then.

The debut Edensong album, 'The Fruit Fallen', appeared in 2007. However it wasn't a 'standard' album recorded over a short period of time with the aim of creating an album. Instead it's a collection of songs recorded between 2004 and 2007, featuring a variety of line-ups. How did the album end up coming together that way, rather than in a more conventional manner?

I would actually make the case that 'The Fruit Fallen' was very much an album, and not just a compilation. Perhaps it was more similar to a "solo" album with the contributions of a ton of guest musicians, whereas Edensong releases since then have been more of a true group effort. I conceived of 'The Fruit Fallen' as an album of the songs that I had written up until that time. I did a considerable amount of pre-production work to cull through my songs – some written months before recording started, some from a few years before – tweak the arrangements and develop a cohesiveness to the sound of the record despite the variety of style and instrumentation across it. We started recording all of the songs around the same time, within the span of a year or so, as time allowed, so it wasn't as if these were recordings from disparate periods of the band's history. Basic tracks – me, Matt, and TD, who was the studio bassist for this album but didn't really play live with the band regularly until 2009 – were completed in 2004-5 along with many of the overdubs and some basic mixes on a few tracks, but the additional overdubbing and editing/mixing lasted until October 2007 in fits and starts, as I navigated post college life and people's busy schedules. In terms of the shifting lineups and copious guest musician appearances, It became very difficult to coordinate with the band members after college, as we were all living pretty far away from each other, so I often would record with any musicians who were willing/available. I had written charts for all of the songs and was fortunate enough to find some very talented and generous musicians who believed in the project and were willing to help me finish it the way I envisioned. The other component was that I really wanted sonic variety across the album, and working with guest musicians and esoteric instruments gave me a way to achieve this.

How do you think it represented where Edensong were at that stage?

I think it paints a pretty accurate portrait of the Edensong of the time: a single compositional voice and a wide variety of talented guest instrumentalists. I should point out that I think both Matt's explosive drumming style, and TD's approach to bass playing/writing really shaped the sound of the record as well, so I definitely can't claim all the creative credit!! I experimented a ton and learned a tremendous amount from making this record. I listen to the album pretty rarely these days, but it's always a mixture of something like "wow, that was really cool sounding" and "what were you thinking with that guitar tone, snare sound etc." It will always be an important album to me, one of which I'm very proud. I think it formed a sturdy base on which we built the future Edensong sound.

The album gained a lot of critical praise and resulted in the offer of some live shows. However, as you mentioned, there wasn't really a stable Edensong line-up at the time. How did you manage to bring a new line-up together to take the band forward?

I had originally met Stefan back in 2002 when we were both filling in as tenors for a youth choir singing Mozart's Requiem. He was wearing a Dream Theater shirt, so we struck up a conversation about the merits and demerits of the latest DT release – tangentially, wearing a prog shirt is the best way to meet bandmates! I think we jammed only once around that time, but we re-connected when he came to see Edensong perform in 2006. We didn't actually start working together until 2008, right after 'The Fruit Fallen' was released. When the album started to get some nice reviews and recognition and we got the offer to play at Three Rivers Progressive Rock Festival (3RP) in Pittsburgh, it became essential that we put a full lineup together. Stefan was able to somehow convince his friend/collaborator Barry to join the band on flute, and I think we met the rest of the musicians from that era through craigslist and music store postering. Tony – newly back from 4 years in Japan – and TD, who I also hadn't seen in a long time, ended up joining us onstage at 3RP for the final song, which paved the way for them to join/re-join Edensong soon thereafter, when we were invited to play Progday a few weeks later as a last minute fill-in. Tony/TD managed to learn/re-learn our entire set in a manner of days and the rest is history!!

The 'Echoes Of Edensong' album was released in 2010 but rather than being an all-new album it re-worked some music by Echoes Of Eden and added some live cuts. Can you give us some background behind the 'Echoes Of Edensong' album?

I would describe 'Echoes of Edensong' as an EP, rather than an album. Unlike 'The Fruit Fallen', which was conceived as an album, and featured all new, unreleased, songs, 'Echoes of Edensong' was primarily a disc of new re-workings of previously released songs. 'Echoes of Edensong' was the first recording project we took on with the current Edensong lineup. We knew we wanted to put out some fresh material to coincide with some of the festival performances we were playing, but it was important for me to build a level of comfort and familiarity in the studio together before we took on any major writing/recording such as 'Years in the Garden of Years'. There were a few older songs that I wanted Edensong to record, such as Echoes of Eden's "Beneath the Tide", which had always been a popular song in our live set. Since the EP centred around this song – featuring both a new studio arrangement and a live version from 3RP – I saw the record as a melding of Edensong and the earlier Echoes of Eden. I think that artistic sensibility persists through our most recent material as well, blending the acoustic/orchestral nature of early Edensong with the harder rocking Echoes of Eden.

Although the line-up has evolved further between then and your new album, 'Years In The Garden Of Years'. Can you tell us how the current line-up of the band came together?

The only substantive change in the lineup between the release of 'Echoes of Edensong' and the release of 'Years in the Garden of Years', was the loss of a full time cellist. Having a classical string player in the band had always been an element of the Edensong sound and we started the writing and recording process for 'YitGoY' with a cellist. When we mutually decided to part ways during the recording process we decided to carry through our initial vision and keep the cello parts, hiring Eric Stephenson (a phenomenal player) to finish the cello recording for the album. We have no plans to find a new cellist, and I'm quite enjoying the more manageable, tighter and compact lineup.

And, if it has, how has having a more stable line-up changed the way you write and record music?

I would say it's changed things tremendously. Writing 'Years in the Garden of Years' was an extremely collaborative process. I think everyone in the band feels some type of personal connection to the composition process. We all play slightly different roles. Some of us generate melodies and riffs, some work more with the concept and arrangement etc. so it's quite a symbiotic process. Having a stable lineup also encouraged us to handle the music "in-house." Whereas 'The Fruit Fallen' featured a multitude of guest musicians, 'YitGoY,' with a few notable exceptions, is just the band!

With an enigmatic title like 'Years In The Garden Of Years', it isn't too much of a shock that this album is a concept piece. Can you give us some detail behind the themes and ideas of the album and its name - and where that inspiration comes from?

It's pretty funny actually. The title "Years in the Garden of Years" actually came verbatim from a dream that I had. In my dream, it was the title of the new Dream Theater album. When I woke up, I wrote it down, and actually decided it was an interesting and quirky title and really coincided nicely with the concept for the album, which was already in development by that point. 'YitGoY' is an album about time in a pretty general sense. While I would certainly describe it as a concept album, it's not a linear narrative with a set of characters etc. – think 'Scenes from a Memory', or something like that. Instead, it's more of a song cycle – especially tracks 2 through 9 – where there are some overlapping musical and lyrical themes and the songs flow into one another, but don't form a single story. Each song focuses on a slightly different aspect of time, sometimes looking at an individual lifetime, sometimes zooming out and looking at the rise and fall of civilizations or even geological time. There are some recurring lyrical tropes, such as "the Garden of Years" but even this refers to different things in different songs. I really wanted to keep the lyrical universe of this album very open to interpretation, and not guide the listener too literally. We set out to make an album that was evocative and visual and I hope we've succeeded in some measure.

Musically the album is equally adventurous, drawing aspects of classic 70s prog and blending them seamlessly with a more contemporary attack. Where does the band pull its musical inspiration from…

Thanks! That's certainly what we were hoping to achieve. With five guys in the band, we have a very wide base of musical influences to draw from. Personally, I spent a lot of my childhood poring over my father's record collection. This is where my love of classic prog – Yes, Jethro Tull etc. – and my fondness for acoustic music such as Cat Stevens, Simon and Garfunkel, and again Jethro Tull, came from. By middle school and high school, I was listening to quite a bit of metal as well – classic Metallica, Megadeth, Dream Theater, Tool, Symphony X – and I loved the more aggressive playing style and production of this music. I think my goal with Edensong was to blend the adventurous song structures, sonic expansiveness and variety of color/texture from classic prog with the immediacy and aggressiveness of metal. Add into this a fascination with large scale symphonic works, film and video game music, and I think you'll have a pretty good sense of where I was coming from.

…and the ever impossible question, how would you describe the Edensong sound?

Imagine a blend between classic Dream Theater, Jethro Tull, and Nobuo Uematsu. Does that sound accurate?

It does indeed! Flute in prog isn't a hugely unusual addition and yet the manner in which that instrument drives much of what 'Years In The Garden Of Years' is about does set this album apart from most others featuring the instrument. Was that always part of the DNA of the band?

Since its inception in 2002, Edensong has always had a flute player. However, it wasn't until 2008 that we had Barry Seroff, and I think that makes all the difference. The songs on 'The Fruit Fallen' all feature flute playing a fairly standard melodic role. When Barry joined the band, he introduced us all to the wide possibilities of the instrument: from melodic, to percussive, to ambient, with all sorts of extended techniques, to brash and improvisatory. I think we really get to feature all these elements of Barry's playing across the record. I've never heard anyone quite like him.

The arrangements on the album are one of its many strengths, complex but accessible and in many ways key to how distinct and memorable this album becomes. Where has that aspect of the band's armoury come from and how much do you focus on that side of your music?

Believe it or not, accessibility has always been a goal of Edensong. I never had a great appreciation for music that was purposefully alienating or complex just for the sake of it. My tastes have certainly run more experimental and avant-garde over the years as I get bored of other stuff, but I still want some grounding in the form of memorable melodies etc. I think in some ways 'Years in the Garden of Years' is both more complex and more accessible than its predecessor. I would attribute this largely to the added compositional/arrangement brainpower of Stefan and Barry and the accessible melodic skills of Tony and TD. Regardless, I'm sure the album is still too "out there" for many people, and probably too tame for others.

And how influential has getting people like Bob Katz involved in the mastering and Dan May in creating the stunning artwork been in forming an album that reveals its moods and atmospheres in a whole host of different ways?

Bob was far more involved than the typical mastering engineer. In additional to doing a great job of balancing the tonality and preserving the impact/dynamics of the music, he really helped to guide me through the mixing process as well. His feedback on my early mixes was at times harsh and critical, but it led me to make decisions that were ultimately far better for the sound of the record. He was also very receptive to my feedback. I ended up flying down to Florida and attending our mastering session so that we could carefully preserve the nuances and flow between tracks that I intended for the album. I couldn't be happier with his work!

Dan May is an artist I've had great admiration for since discovering his work online a few years ago. We were looking for a surrealist painter who could really match the look and feel of the music, and I really think Dan fit the bill. It turned out that he really liked the band's music and we worked together on developing a visual concept to accompany the album. The cover was commissioned specifically for Edensong, but we found that a lot of his other work helped to convey the themes of the music as well and we opted to include some of that in the lyric booklet. Dan came into the process when the album was already well underway, so I don't think his visual style had a direct impact on the creation of the music, but I do think it made for a great companion.

You've been playing shows throughout this year as the band build up to the release of the new album. How much new material have you been incorporating and how have the audiences been reacting to it?

The reaction has been great, especially to our most recent shows (such as our recent album release in NYC). When we started writing for the album, we really gave little thought as to how we would actually play this material live. Some of the parts and transitions are extremely challenging and there are usually many layers at any given time, often more than can be played by the five of us. It's an extremely rewarding process to work through the material as a group and get to the point where we can actually make it through these songs convincingly onstage! I've designed a monitoring/playback system that uses Hear Technology's brilliant Hearback system and enables us to mix our own monitoring levels and automate things like guitar sounds, vocal volumes and trigger some sounds from the record that play an important role in the music but that we wouldn't be able to handle live. Our last few shows have featured almost entirely new material, though I suspect we'll start reworking and reintroducing some older material soon. I'd like to be able to play the new album in its entirety by the time of our spring festival appearances, but we've got a ways to go...

And you've recently appeared at Progtoberfest, which looks to be an excellent festival and you've also been announced on the bill for next year's Rosfest. You must be delighted to have been asked to take part in both events and hopefully continue to spread the music of Edensong to a wider audience?

Progtoberfest was a really fun time. It's always nice to be in an environment with that many talented and interesting bands. It's a great opportunity to connect with fellow bands and pick up some new fans. We're extremely excited to be playing RoSfest this year. It's long been a dream of ours to play, and to be tapped to play right before Anglagard, the Sunday night headliner is really an honor! We'll also be returning to Festival Terra Incognita, in Quebec. I think our first appearance at this festival in 2010 was our favorite show of all time, so, needless to say, we're psyched to go back!

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