Published on 14th June 2016
With his latest album, The Seasons Turn, recently reviewed at TPA, Lee Abraham is back. Leo Trimming took the opportunity to speak to Lee about the album, his career and future plans.
Leo Trimming: Hi Lee, The Seasons Turn is your latest impressive album, released on Festival Music. What was your main inspiration for the epic title track, and is there a theme to the whole album?
Lee Abraham: Hi! I guess the theme is the passing of time, that’s where the seasons turning reference comes from. Also there is Live for Today and The Unknown, both talking about ‘journeys’ in their own way. With the title track I never set out to write a 24 minute song… who does!? I wrote the middle bit as a stand alone song, then the final section happened, so then I wrote an intro section to glue the whole thing together. I’m very proud of it, its quite a monster song!
Leo: Yes, it’s an outstanding, epic opening song. It’s great to hear Martin Orford, once of legendary Prog band IQ, back in action on flute on the title track. How did you persuade him back into the studio and what was it like working with him?
Lee: Martin, well I worked with him in the past on my View from the Bridge album in 2004. He gave me lots of advice back then and he was pleased for me when I later joined Galahad, so I like to think he’s always “looked out” for me. I asked him to do flute and he agreed straight away, no question.
Leo: There’s a feeling of a passage through the album from the Spring like hope of Live for Today, the summer brightness of Harbour Lights and Say Your Name Aloud through to what feels to me the more elegiac Autumnal or Winter feeling of The Unknown. Was that a conscious passage planned for the album from the start or did the songs grow to suggest that theme as you wrote the album?
Lee: I guess they grew that way. It’s never a conscience decision to write songs that link together. It just kind of happens over time (passing of time again!).
Leo: There is a real sense of optimism and positivity on songs like Live for Today and Harbour Lights. Are they based on personal experiences or feelings?
Lee: Not really! Lyric writing is the hardest bit for me. I was once advised by a song writing friend years ago to think of a song title first. Get the song title and then try to build a short story out of it. So that’s how it works for me. A title just springs to mind and then I get writing. I do tend to write lyrics as quickly as I can, usually because I’m desperate to get the vocal melodies recorded before I forget them! I think it’s good not to dwell on anything artistic, you can ruin it by over-correcting it.
Leo: The artwork by Paul Tippet beautifully reflects the music and feel of this album. I think Paul has done the excellent and striking artwork for all of your albums. How was the artwork devised for The Seasons Turn and how much input do you have into that process?
Lee: To be honest, not a great deal! I send him MP3s of the songs (which are usually unfinished at that time) and he just gets to work using the lyrics and feelings from the melodies. He’s a huge music fan and so he can understand where the album’s coming from. He’s also a very creative chap so he can almost envision an entire artwork concept just from giving him an album title!
Leo: He does a great job combining artistically with your music. I particularly love the cover of your Black and White album. Can you describe the creative song writing process for you? For instance, does the music or the lyrics come first?
Lee: Always the music. I sit down either with a piano or a guitar and work out a few chords, throw things about, see what sticks…. Then hum a melody over the top and try to find something pleasing and melodic. Sometimes I record entire songs without any vocal melodies at all, you just leave gaps for the verses and choruses to slot into. I’m a great user of the 4 chord pattern; The Seasons Turn chorus for instance is a great example – A, G, D and F. All fairly simple really. Then the vocal melody comes last when I’ve written lyrics.
Songs like Live for Today are very riff driven and written on guitar. Same process really but just not on a piano! The prog bit usually comes out by where you take the song, what other sections you give it – like a quiet section with Mellotron and flute (that’s VERY prog!). Whereas a song like Say Your Name Aloud is very not prog, its just a soft rock song. But sometimes I throw prog sections into those too (Celebrity Status from Black and White was a pop song but a bit proggy in the middle).
For me, the term “progressive” means there are no rules… I mean there aren’t any rules with art at all, but with prog I like to think you can take it anywhere, go in any direction, mix it all together. It might feel like my music has a certain sound, but in terms of styles, there’s rock, prog, pop, even some metal in there…
Leo: An interesting insight into your creative process. What do you prefer? Writing or recording?
Lee: Recording. Writing is OK, but can be very frustrating. As Billy Joel once said “there’s nothing more frustrating than writing, but there’s nothing more enjoyable than having written”… something like that anyway! I first got into writing because I wanted to create songs and albums that sounded like my favourite music. How did they get those sounds? How did they create those lush layers, etc. That’s all about production and mixing. Writing, for me, just gives me the material to be able to create those sounds.
Leo: The guitar work on The Seasons Turn is outstanding, stellar in places. How do you feel your guitar playing has developed since the earlier albums, and what contribution do other guitarists play on the album? Whom is your favourite / most influential guitarist?
Lee: Half and half really! I used to do a lot of them myself in the old days and use a lot of guests now. Having said that, there is a lot of my guitar work on The Seasons Turn. I play a lot locally these days, more than ever really, so it’s improved me as a player. I also had a few lessons from Jamie Humphries and Dec Burke – both of whom gave me new tips and tricks and let me know where I was going wrong on a few levels! It always helps to get advice every now and then, even if you’re a well-practised pro! It feels great to be more confident on guitar and pull off things I couldn’t years ago. Although I still get others in to add colour and variation to the album. As for a favourite guitarist I would choose David Gilmour for ‘feel’ and John Petrucci for technical brilliance.
Leo: You have collaborated with an impressive array of reputable Prog artists on your last three albums (including Martin Orford (ex–IQ), Gary Chandler (Jadis), Dec Burke (ex-Frost* & Audioplastik), Steve Thorne, John Young (Lifesigns), Robin Armstrong (Cosmograf), Sean Filkins (ex-Big Big Train), Marc Atkinson (Riversea), Mark Colton (Credo), Jem Godfrey (Frost*), John Mitchell (It Bites, Frost*, Arena, etc., etc!) and Simon Godfrey (ex-Tinyfish & Shineback), amongst others). How do you go about recruiting such talented artists to play on your albums, and how do you choose them for each specific song? Are there any other particular artists you would really like to work with on your next album?
Lee: In days gone by I would just have a think about who would be suitable (and available!) to fill certain gaps on stuff I’d already written. Nowadays, having worked with a good number of people, I tend to write specifically with people in mind. Marc Atkinson is a great example. He sang on some demos of mine years ago that never got officially released so I knew his style and range. So when I’d written Corridors of Power (from my last album Distant Days) I knew he’d be perfect. For this album I wrote The Seasons Turn epic and tweaked the vocal melody to enable Marc to sing it, so I’m almost “writing to order” now!
In people like Marc Atkinson, Simon Godfrey and Dec Burke I have found my “go to” vocalists. Mark Colton of Credo was a great surprise on this album too. Singing a pop song is usually out of his usual style and comfort zone, and yet he did a brilliant job! He’s such a cool guy too, that always helps, as there’s a lot of prima donnas, even at this level!!
As for singers for the future, well I’m a big Steve Overland, vocalist in the band FM, fan. I’ve wanted to work with him for ages. I have contacted him and made enquiries in the past. As you can imagine his session rates are quite high! One day though.
Leo: You have also produced and collaborated with other artists on their albums. Especially impressive in terms of production was Sean Filkins’ great 2011 solo album War & Peace & Other Short Stories. What qualities do you bring to those artists, and do you have plans to produce or collaborate with other artists?
Lee: People usually just like the sounds I produce so ask me to be involved. I get the odd guest slot or get asked to mix things for people sometimes but it’s not a huge aspect for me. It’s certainly not my living! I think if I relied on studio production to pay my bills I’d fall out of love with it. Being a hobby is just fine.
Leo: On previous album sleeve notes you have paid ‘Inspirational Thanks’ to artists such as Steven Wilson, Neal Morse, Sting, Dream Theater and It Bites (and Neptune’s Sofa?!). Are there any other significant artists for you? (and just who or what is ‘Neptune’s Sofa?!)
Lee: No, that’s just about everyone!
Neptune’s Sofa were a band made up of Gerald Mulligan, Simon Nixon, Paul Tippett (check my album credits) and a couple of other guys. They rehearsed a few times with a view to doing an album, wrote some material but ultimately never really got off the ground, but some of the band members “talked up” the band for years and years on internet chatrooms, etc., so much so that there was a little bit of buzz around the band and I drew influence from the perspective of “never give up, however the odds might be stacked against you, keep it going!” Sadly, the inevitable happened and Neptune’s Sofa are no more…or are they?
Leo: You were previously a member of Galahad and played on their Empires Never Last album of 2006. How did you join them and what was it like playing/writing with a band compared with your experiences as a solo artist? Do have any contact with your old band now?
Lee: I answered an ad I saw on a prog forum. Contacted Stu Nicholson (Galahad Vocalist), met him in a pub and arranged an audition. I think I was the only person to reply! I loved my time with the band and have some great memories. I think they did some of their best gigs and tours while I was with them so I was lucky to be part of it. I also learned a lot about being in a prog band, studio work, touring, etc. Ultimately though it was touring that put me off. Being away from home when you have a young family for something that is essentially a hobby took its toll. The last mini tour of Poland I did in 2009 burned me out. I got ill on that trip too and really just wanted to be home. I quit more or less as soon as we got back. We didn’t write a great deal while I was in the band as Empires Never Last had been done just as I joined. We started to throw around a few ideas and I remembered a few riffs and melodies from those sessions when I heard their later album Battle Scars but to be honest, writing as part of a team is not something I’m used to, whereas for them, it’s how they work so there may well have been conflicts there had I stayed.
We didn’t speak for years but then at Celebr8.3 Festival in 2014 when they played and I played guitar for Cosmograf we met backstage and it was like the silent years never happened! They were in good spirits and it was great to see them all. We have since connected again on Facebook so I chat to Stu every now and then.
Leo: I saw you play a great gig with the Lee Abraham Band at the Winter’s End Festival in Stroud in 2010 with Sean Filkins on vocals. You also played with Cosmograf at Celebr8.3 (which apparently was a highlight of the festival). I know you play regularly with your rock band Something Else near where you live. However, you have only played these rare live ‘Prog’ gigs as far as I am aware – I know it’s not easy making the figures add up for such gigs but are there any plans to play your solo Prog material with the Lee Abraham Band?
Lee: That’s exactly it. The numbers just don’t add up at this low level. Steven Wilson can play the Albert Hall as he knows he can now sell it out. I’d be lucky to sell out the Gents toilet there!!!! Festivals are really the only place a lot of lower level bands can play at and unfortunately the prog festivals are dwindling now. I was saddened to hear that Celebr8.3 would be the last one. It seemed really well attended so I don’t know what more the organisers could’ve done?
I have chatted to the guys in my band and we’re all up for a festival appearance or two on the back of The Seasons Turn, in fact we’re going to have a rehearsal of the some of the material later in the summer…we’ll see how it goes…watch this space!
Leo: You have collaborated with various South Coast based Prog artists such as Sean Filkins, Robin Armstrong (Cosmograf), Steve Thorne and Martin Orford amongst others. It’s quite an impressive array of talent in one area. Is there any chance of you collaborating further in the studio or jointly as a live project with these artists? (You would make up a great band!)
Lee: You never know! Having said that, Martin is retired from music really these days. He just does the odd bit here and there. Both Sean and Steve I’ve not seen in a while, they both keep low profiles these days, not sure why? Robin Armstrong is still very active and we connect on a regular basis. He’s done really well over the last 5 years. However, he really dislikes playing live though. If he did tour I could see him as being the next Steven Wilson in another 5 years…
Leo: One last question – a bit of a silly question. Imagine you’re imprisoned in a cell and you can only take 5 albums in with you – you can take two Lee Abraham albums – which two and which three other albums would you choose, and why? (I’ve allowed you two Lee Abraham albums because understandably I feel sure you’re going to say The Seasons Turn as one of them, and I’m interested which other album you value most).
Lee: Yeah, The Seasons Turn I guess! I am very proud of it though. Also Black and White I think as that album did kind of propel me into much bigger audiences and was a watershed album in production terms (first one I did using Apple Mac and Pro Tools).
As for other albums, well I’m very much into Dream Theater’s The Astonishing. I’ve not thought much of their post-Portnoy albums but this one is so good! Many layers and the orchestra and choirs sounds amazing!!
Next one would be Once Around the World by It Bites – just amazing song writing – pop, rock, prog; its all on there – a big influence for me. Happy to have had John Beck as a mate for a while a few years ago too.
Last choice – Maybe something from Iron Maiden as they were the first band I got into aged 10. Seventh Son of a Seventh Son perhaps?
Lee: Thanks for the interview.
Leo: Thanks for taking the time to answer the questions, Lee, for The Progressive Aspect interview and good luck with the album The Seasons Turn.