In Space and Time:
An EXCLUSIVE interview
By Stephen SPAZ Schnee
Music is a lot like life – on the surface, it may seem simple but peel away the layers and you’ll find something far more complex. For those looking for a quick three minute blast of ear candy, the Top 40 has always been a reliable outpost to find instant gratification. However, for the last 45 years or so, Progressive Rock has been a refuge for those in need of something more challenging and with much more depth than the average Pop tune. Prog Rock, simply put, removes the structured shackles of the Rock ‘n’ Roll formula and allows it to roam freely much like a free-form Jazz piece or a Classical movement. Armed with odd time signatures, grandiose production and ambitious concepts, a single Prog song could last six minutes or take up three sides of a two record album – there is no proper formula when creating art that is equal parts mesmerizing and pretentious. Punk Rock tried to kill Prog Rock in the late ‘70s, but the young upstarts merely gave the elders a kick in the butt and sent them home for a much needed rest. Punk may have won the battle in ’77, but nearly four decades later, Prog Rock has recovered and is stronger than ever. From reissues to reunions, Prog’s old guard is in high demand by music fans old and new. And while Prog has never been considered ‘cool’ by hipsters, the genre’s avid fanbase has continued to multiply at a surprising rate across the globe. From pioneers like Yes to younger, critically adored acts like Porcupine Tree, Prog Rock is alive and well.
One of Prog’s many subgenres is Space Rock, an enchanting hybrid of Prog and Psychedelic Rock, pioneered by bands Like Hawkwind, Gong, and Pink Floyd. Space Rock was mostly confined to the British Isles in the late ‘60s through the ‘70s, but the movement has inspired many artists over the years. One such band is Sontaag, a new duo comprised of New York-based multi-instrumentalist Richard Sontaag and UK-bound narrator/vocalist/lyricist Ian Fortnam. Recorded over the span of a few years, their self-titled debut is a blend of Space Rock, Prog Rock, Electronica and Ambient music with a cinematic twist. Some may call Sontaag a concept album but the duo prefers to call it ‘sonic cinema.’ Produced by the enigmatic Youth, the album presents the story in music and narration, but it is up to the listener to project those audio images into their imagination and visualize the album in order to get the full effect. For a listener to invest their time in an album as a whole may seem absurd to those who are happy with three minute bursts of chewy nonsense, but that time is not wasted for those searching for more. A delight from start to finish, Sontaag takes the listener on a trip through space and time, from the cold and dark recess of space to the dry and brittle deserts of the soul. This is not just a collection of tracks – it’s a proper album. “Pucker up and kiss the Apocalypse,” indeed!
Stephen SPAZ Schnee was able to send a load of questions over to Richard Sontaag and Ian Fortnam, who were kind enough to discuss the album, their influences and more…
STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: Your self-titled debut album is now available. How are you feeling about the project and the reaction you’ve received so far?
RICHARD SONTAAG: Well, one nice thing about it is that I thought I’d want to change something about the finished album, as I am used to fiddling with the mixes. But I don’t. It sounds complete.
IAN FORTNAM: I’m delighted that it made it from thought to expression. I love that the finished product came to exceed the sum of its parts. And I’m flattered that it’s been defined as Progressive by so many observers. For me that’s the ultimate compliment.
SPAZ: Were you initially nervous about making your debut a concept album… or was that the intention behind the band in the first place – to come together as a unit to create this particular album?
RICHARD: We never really thought of it as a concept album. I have spent a lot of time around the cinema industry, and the idea was to make an album that had the same dynamics as a feature film – a piece of music that takes you up and down like a good movie when you listen to it. Sontaag is a kind of a film told in music and words.
It never occurred to us to be nervous. Rock and roll has been around for a long time now, no one should be afraid of trying to do something a bit different.
IAN: I’ve always loved Richard’s work and vision. He came to me, as always, with the germ of an idea that immediately inspired me. Once seeded, the fundamental sonic cinema concept proliferated wildly, and Sontaag’s story effectively wrote itself, I sat there at the keyboard and there it was. The creative process was almost more visceral than cerebral. There was no real intention to write a concept album as such. Ultimately, Sontaag was more inspired into being than contrived.
SPAZ: Before we discuss the album, how did you two meet? Most importantly, when did you realize that you were musically compatible? Was there a particular recording where you both realized ‘yeah, this is working?’
RICHARD: We met at school. Ian was always the cool guy with Hawkwind and Rolling Stones albums under his arm – those albums were kind of statements of intent for him, I think. I was the kid with the guitar, jamming in the school music rooms at lunchtime. We had not really seen each other much since we left school, though, until we decided to make this album.
We have never been musically compatible – we bring different ideas to the project, so it’s healthy. Ian has always been a big Johnny Thunders fan, for instance, and I was never much into that scene. And I’m more Zeppelin, and he’s more Stones. But I did recently discover we both like Miles Davis. Does it work? Well, Ian said some nice things on the radio about me the other day, so it seems to.
IAN: Richard and I are massively incompatible. We always have been, but I think we both recognize that - creatively speaking - in order to fashion Rock ‘n’ Roll pearls you’ve got to have some grit in your oyster, and we each provide the other’s grit. I’m a massive believer in the power of Rock incompatibility. Look at The Who, Kinks, Libertines: bands never happier than when knocking lumps out of each other… but when those sparks fly, they’re invincible.
We’ve known each other forever, but only worked together when we knew we had something special to deliver. Life’s too short to fight battles and sweat blood over unremarkable work, so we work on a strictly project-by-project basis. Sontaag was clearly working from the very beginning, otherwise it wouldn’t be here to discuss. I’d never finish anything I didn’t believe in.
SPAZ: Who first put forward the concept behind the new album? It’s pretty ambitious…
RICHARD: I’m to blame for that. I was listening to War of The Worlds and I remember thinking, ‘I wonder what that would have sounded like if it had been done by Pink Floyd or Hawkwind?’ I’m not putting us at the level of those bands, but that was the genesis of the idea.
IAN: Richard reanimated a fundamental Space Rock compulsion in me that’s probably lain dormant since the Sex Pistols usurped the position Hawkwind had formerly held in my teenaged heart. Then Youth and I bonded over a shared rediscovery of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here…
There was an odd synchronicity at work. As soon as I said the words ‘Space Opera’ to Youth, he was in. Then I knew, beyond doubt, we had a ball game.
SPAZ: What inspired the concept of the album?
RICHARD: Ian had his own influences for the story. As for me, I’m a big fan of Buzz Aldrin, and that inspired me to do something about space. Buzz is an evangelist for manned space exploration; I saw him speak once, and it’s difficult not to be inspired by him, he is so passionate about science.
IAN: For me the vital spark came from the introduction to Greg Milner’s remarkable book Perfecting Sound Forever. The extract in question is almost an aside about the ripples of the big bang still reverberating through the universe, but it was a concept that resonated with me, and before I knew where I was, the Sontaag saga had effortlessly fallen out of my head.
SPAZ: Does an album like this grow organically from beginning to end or were you recording bits and pieces and then building the album from these different musical passages?
RICHARD: There has to be an underlying idea of how the finished item is going to sound, or it’s not going to be coherent. Musically, I kept a certain sound palette in mind when I was recording to give it unity – certain instruments, certain settings, certain reverbs. We also had the narrative story Ian had carefully crafted to keep us on track.
Youth, of course, brought his own vision to it. I mixed it to the point I thought it was finished, then he took over and elevated it to an epic level. I was amazed how in synch me, Ian and Youth were. When Youth sent me the mix for “Aftershock,” he asked for my opinions and some notes, and I just wrote back, “Sounds great.” He said, “Don’t you have any notes?” and I said, “That was my notes: sounds great.”
IAN: To my ears, Richard and I gave Youth the raw materials of a great record, and Youth handed us back a masterpiece.
SPAZ: The album is most certainly a journey of different moods and emotions. As an artist, how do you find the right frame of mind when approaching each composition, both at the writing and recording stage?
RICHARD: I’m not really sure where inspiration comes from. Perhaps it’s just the product of working at it. But once you’ve got inspiration, getting it down on tape, so to speak, is a fine balance between technique and emotion. You can’t think too much about it, but you can’t think too little about it, either.
IAN: I can’t analyze inspiration. I don’t think anyone can. There’s nothing supernatural about creativity. You simply throw a bucket down the well and see what comes up. I guess whether you draw out sweet clear water or brackish stagnant gloop depends on your underlying state of mind, mood and emotion.
SPAZ: Do you feel that freeing yourself of the standard ‘Rock’ formula has allowed you to inject more emotion into the songs?
RICHARD: Well, I think that Sontaag is first and foremost a Rock album. It has loud drums, it has loud vocals, it has loud guitars, and there’s an epic guitar-driven finale, “Memoria Tenere.” But thinking of it as one hour-long piece, instead of a collection of individual tracks, proved to be surprisingly liberating for me.
IAN: Conversely, if Sontaag were just a Rock album, I wouldn’t have been completely happy with it. It needed another element. I hear a lot of contemporary Rock music and way too much of it is generic, stagnant and uninspired. I literally couldn’t be bothered with simply adding to that endless directionless clamor.
Sontaag always had light as well as shade, and it was this broad spread of mood and emotion that I felt Youth could accentuate with the kind of production expertise and vision only he really possesses. Youth has an internal sound palette that can convey both the epic and the understated.
Ambient music has its pre-Eno roots in Progressive Rock music, yet somewhere along the ever-more-conservative, generic line it seems to have become considered as the exclusive preserve of post-rave dance culture. Youth – who simply doesn’t recognize constrictive generic boundaries - understands Ambient textures better than anyone and was able to weave such subtleties into the overall sound of Sontaag. That’s why Sontaag is more than just a Rock album and why I remained engaged with it up to and even beyond completion.
SPAZ: Before putting the final version of the album together, was there a lot of material you had to cut in order to keep it at the length it is now? If so, will we be hearing any of that material later?
RICHARD: We generally edited it as we went along. I’d record something, me and Ian would listen to it a week later, and we’d throw it out if it wasn’t good enough. As the structure built up, certain moods were needed in certain places – that’s how “Minor Keys of Anguished Weeping” came about. It wasn’t a case of recording hours and hours of music and then trying to figure out how to put it together at the end. There was a plan to it.
IAN: The narrative was cut to the bone. There was a lot more of it, but a close edit allowed more space for the listener’s imagination to fill. We never edited to fit a predetermined length, we edited to trim it of all inconsequential fat and to accentuate the drama of the piece, just as a film editor would. Just because you’ve 80 minutes to play with on a CD doesn’t mean you have to fill them. Say what you’ve got to say and get out. I’d rather leave the audience hungry for more than uncomfortably bloated by the prevailing never-mind-the-quality-feel-the-width approach that’s been adopted by way too many contemporary rock artists.
SPAZ: “Spaceshifter” has been compared to Hawkwind. What inspired that track?
RICHARD: The phase-shifters make “Spaceshifter” sound a bit like Hawkwind, I guess. But the rhythm guitars for that and “Interstellar Genocide” were actually an attempt to sound like Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols. And I put the “Spaceshifter” solo in for Ian – it’s meant as a tribute to Johnny Thunders.
IAN: When the reformed Sex Pistols toured in 2002 they opened their set with a cover of “Silver Machine.” Hawkwind were as much the voice of the radical UK underground as the Pistols ever were. The aggression of Hawkwind prepared us all for Punk, they were our MC5. So for me, Hawkwind transcend categorization. They’ve embraced dance music, influenced the development of Krautrock, and yet they’re embarrassingly under-rated. “Spaceshifter” is visceral Rock ‘n’ Roll: look that phrase up in the visual dictionary of Rock, and depending on what edition you’re checking, you’ll either be faced with a picture of Hawkwind or the Sex Pistols. ‘Spaceshifter” was our attempt to get our picture into the next edition.
SPAZ: How did Youth get involved with the project?
RICHARD: Youth really loves music, that’s what is so brilliant about him - he does what interests him. Not all producers have that approach. Ian played him a demo of it, and he liked it, and offered to do it. The way he approaches sound is fascinating; it’s as if he can see it, as well as hear it. Sound seems to a three-dimensional entity for him. He’s kind of like Phil Spector, George Martin and Brian Eno all rolled into one.
IAN: I told Youth we were looking for a producer, said the words ‘Space Opera’ to him, his eyes sparkled and the next thing me and Richard knew we had a masterpiece on our hands.
SPAZ: You’ve described your sound as ‘sonic cinema’. Do you feel that the music video boom in the ‘80s took the magic of imagination away from the listener? I have many different images in my head when I hear an album and the music videos were usually never what I imagined and were always disappointing…
RICHARD: Yes, good point, that sounds right. But you do need somewhere to put your eyes when you are listening to music. You can try shutting them, but I can never keep mine shut for very long. That’s why album covers are important – they are not just containers. We have a 16-page art booklet that was designed to complement the music visually when you are listening to it. It adds an extra dimension.
IAN: I spent most of the ‘80s processing the music of the ‘60s and ‘70s. The ‘80s were little more than a handy stopgap for recapitulation. The sheer vacuity and literal nature of most pop videos simply served to turn music into easily digested incidental Muzak: bland bubblegum for the ears. Music is an aural medium, to be listened too; with ‘sonic cinema’ our primary intention is to combine words and music in such a way that our two-dimensional stereo sound evokes its own visual third dimension in the listener’s mind. Sontaag may be an audio experience, but with the addition of a fertile imagination it’s a big screen blockbuster waiting to happen.
SPAZ: Who and what inspired you to become a musician? Is there a particular moment when you said, “OK, that’s what I want to do?”
RICHARD: I’ve been playing guitar since I was eight, it’s always been there, really. I went to see this presentation Iggy did a couple of years ago, and he said something like ‘We formed a band to entertain ourselves and our friends, as we were bored’. Well, that’s what me and Ian did when we were teenagers.
IAN: Playing music was an unattainable dream: Rock stars were like beings from another world, they lived a charmed life that was way beyond the grasp of regular punters like my good self. The closest I ever thought I’d get to actually living the life of a professional Rock musician was by studying Keith Richards until I could precisely mirror the angle of his cigarette’s dangle. Then Punk came along and insisted ‘you too can live your dream’. Encouraging news obviously, but I still had absolutely no idea how I was going to make such a miracle happen. Then I saw Richard playing the guitar… Every would-be Lennon needs a McCartney and Richard just happened to be mine.
SPAZ: Do you feel that digital downloads and streaming have taken the mystery out of the full length album experience?
RICHARD: People always find new ways to use technology, its pointless having an opinion on it, really – it’s what happening and that’s that. I guess it makes it difficult to get people to listen to the tracks in a certain order. But I’ve noticed that people are listening to Sontaag in the published order.
IAN: Not as much as the ‘shuffle’ option. That one click mechanism that turns your entire record collection into your own self-curated radio station may be seductively convenient, but it’s the enemy of the full-length album dynamic. Then again, the arrival of the CD had the same effect. Albums are no longer paced the way they once were. A record’s best four tracks used to be scattered evenly about the vinyl, usually as the first and last tracks on each side. Consequently, every album was programmed to build to a climax, like a movie, like Sontaag. Now it’s become the norm for every artist to cynically bung their best four tracks at the very beginning of their CD, and as a consequence few listeners – serially, and somewhat insultingly, prejudged to have a short attention span - bother to trawl all the way through a limp cavalcade of ever-diminishing returns to the bitter end.
I much prefer the full-length album experience, to get lost in an album’s ambience, to float away on its dynamic ebb and flow. Digital downloading hasn’t rendered the full-length album experience extinct, the expectation of spoon-fed convenience has. Turn off your shuffle buttons, recalibrate your attention span back from five minutes to 50, and you’ll find that it’s still very much alive.
SPAZ: What’s next for Sontaag?
RICHARD: You can find out what we’re doing at www.sontaag.tumblr.com and www.twitter.com/sontaag. To be first band in space would be nice. It would be cool to have a NASA spacesuit with a little Sontaag patch on it.
IAN: For me… A haircut.
SPAZ: What have you been currently spinning on your CD, DVD and record players?
RICHARD: Steve Reich’s The Desert Music, the new Wilko Johnson/Roger Daltrey album, and A Love Supreme, which I play a lot.
IAN: On CD: Killing Joke In Dub, Miles Davis On The Corner, Me First & The Gimme Gimmes Are We Not Men? We Are Diva! On DVD: Breaking Bad and on the record player: Television Marquee Moon.
Thanks to Richard Sontaag and Ian Fortnam
Special thanks to Matthew Ingham