In Search of Perfect Beings…
To coincide with his review of Perfect Beings‘ second album, II (which you can read HERE), The Progressive Aspect’s Tony Colvill spoke with Johannes Luley and Ryan Hurtgen from the band. Once connected over the great distance between Devon and Los Angeles, Johannes and a possibly bleary eyed Ryan talked about the album, the band, its progression, the future and touring.
TPA: Hi, I like the new album, not an instant like, but it grows on you and stays with you in a nice way. To my ears you seem to have come a long way since the first album. I was listening to the first album earlier today. The production on II is slicker and the band seems more confident in its music. Do you feel this is the case?
[Hmm, not a good start. Checks notes – oops, Johannes is the producer. Foot firmly in mouth…]
TPA: Is there a theme that runs through the album?
Johannes: The theme is more about embracing the name of the band, Perfect Beings on the second record. More embracing the spirituality, whereas the first was more political. The first was more ideological; of addressing societal issues. II is more spiritual, internal, a singular journey. There is a distinction in the characters of both albums. In each album I inhabited a different person. I tried to do something different than I had before.
TPA: I watched the video for Rivermaker, is that addressing an environmental theme?
Ryan: Definitely, it’s a commentary on man and nature. It’s not outside of man, I wanted to play on the idea of the beauty in nature, of being serene, without humans. But humans are a part of nature too. There is a bit of an environmental message at one point.
TPA: It’s the stand out track on the album for me, stripped down at the start, and seems stronger in its message for it.
Johannes: This particular song is as you described, fairly stripped down in the beginning, it conjured up a lonely piano man image in my mind. Elton John or Billy Joel, not that Ryan sounds like either of those guys, until the orchestra comes in and the band join, and all mayhem breaks loose.
TPA: I thought the only mayhem on the album was Cause and Effect. Where it almost like you’d gone into the studio and said “who wants to do what?” It seems quite loose in structure.
[They laugh. Phew!]
Johannes: The idea for Cause and Effect – or even the whole second album – was contrast, trying to contrast chaos with harmony. It plays on the theme, lyrical concept of Cause and Effect. This musically goes here, and then we’ll contrast that. It’s like in one sense it slams in, really with chaos, and you don’t know where you are. You don’t know where your feet are; you don’t know where the tempo is, which is sometimes where we are as humans; and then clarity. The clarity is how it felt carrying the weight of it, and that is shown musically by going to the more synchronised perfect harmony that follows chaos. There is a lot of stylistic things like that, that’s how we approach this, a more holistic vision of matching the music for the lyric, and making the music speak for the lyric. That’s something that we try to address with this band.
TPA: I can’t say it is an album that I put on and instantly went ‘Wow!’. There were a couple of wows, but the more I listened the better it got, the album seemed to gel together becoming a favourite on various sources, MP3, HiFi, Car.
Ryan: What did you take from the listening?
TPA: First and foremost were the influences, the music TPA receives gets thrown into the melting pot, a variety of opinions are tossed in, and someone chooses to review. The key is whether something is derivative or unique and Perfect Beings have offered up a vehicle that is very much their own. It’s progressive with pop tendencies, which is not such a bad thing because you want people to listen.
Johannes: Exactly, our approach is to definitely have accessible vocal hooks, woven into music that might not be otherwise accessible. You’ve hit it spot on there, it is really what we are about.
TPA: Listening to the first album, I felt you sounded a lot more “pop”, like Semisonic, which is what I was really trying to say when I said that you had progressed from there.
Ryan: I didn’t like our second record very much when I first heard it, but it grew on me, and I made it!
Johannes: That’s the first time I’ve heard you say that Ryan!
Ryan: The more I listened, the more I realised that it was more spacious and more vulnerable, which is, as an artiste, what I was trying to do; and even sometimes it was “almost too much”, but there is a brilliance in this album if you don’t succumb to just listen without expecting, it takes the right kind of frame of mind for this album. The first album is more theatrical and for a live show, the album was recorded live. It’s a visual thing too, you have to invest in it. People don’t often have enough time these days. When I was a kid, we had albums, and the ones that grew on me were the ones that I didn’t like at first, and didn’t understand them, but they did something different for me. I hated OK Computer (Radiohead), I bought it for the song No Surprises having seen the video, but every other song was terrible. I didn’t understand it at all, the lyrics didn’t make any sense. But the more I consumed it, and listened, the more it grew on me. The best works do that. I think our band’s albums are a lot like that, and I’m making them.
TPA: I think with this album you have produced something that will last.
Johannes: From a producer’s point of view, I try to make records that are timeless, that will sound good in ten or twenty years’ time.
Ryan: My aim is to write lyrics that get to something deep inside, like The Love Inside – “There’s a constant coming up to you” – deeper realisations, philosophical things.
TPA: Are you playing live at the moment?
Johannes: No, we are actually scheduling shows for 2016 with the Rites of Spring Festival in Gettysburg lined up for May, and in the run up to that shows locally in Southern California.
Johannes: Not at the moment, we are in talks with some people, but it is too early to publicise any of that. We are aware of our fan base in England, Germany and The Netherlands; these three are important for us, alongside Canada and the US. It is just a matter of making it financially feasible.
TPA: Absolutely! (Along with a recommendation that Summer’s End is a good gig…)
Johannes: We would hope to go out and lose no money, which would be great.
TPA: Back to the album, any of the tracks that stand out for either of you?
Johannes: I’ve always loved the energy of Volcanic Streams, it’s kind of the most rock track on the record and it inspires me to do more in that direction. It has got a really raw energy to it that ploughs forward, and then there is relaxation of it in the meditative part with the vocals coming in. It’s high on my list followed by Cryogenia, which I call our Purple Rain, then The Love Inside and The Yard. I feel like the record is strong throughout.
TPA: I agree, the flow of the tracks through the album seems well thought out.
Johannes: Thank you, I take the song order very seriously and we had some pretty big fights over it. It was very contentious.
Ryan: I thought starting the album with a long instrumental piece (Mar del Fuego) at the time was maybe wrong, and we should open with Go.
TPA: It opens in a dramatic way, not unlike a couple of Genesis albums; Dance on a Volcano from Trick of the Tail or Behind the Lines from Duke.
Ryan: As a progressive rock band we’re making soundscapes, different worlds, so we are creating listening experiences for that purpose.
Johannes: I remember thinking when Ryan brought in Mar del Fuego, when it was just a piano piece, no lyrics, and thinking, these are just the coolest chords. A lot of the time I do my guitar leads at the last stage of production, but with this track I did the solo while I barely knew what the chords were. I just let the music guide me, so this is probably take one of the solo that we kept on the record. I love that track. The sophomore album is very challenging for an artiste to come up with something that comes up to the first, and I think coming to the album we were confident we had something that matched if not exceeded the first record. We raised the bar.
TPA: Exceeded in my opinion. Perhaps the synchronicity of Mar del Fuego (Sea of Fire) and Dance on a Volcano is poignant.
[Johannes and Ryan posed me a question concerning the London music scene and the other major centres. Now living in a small village – two pubs, a shop and a post office, close to the edge of Dartmoor – ‘music’ and ‘scene’ are very different animals; in terms of prog my reply was that there is a healthy resurgence of progressive bands around the country, but the strongest markets were probably still The Netherlands and Germany. Happy the Man who is corrected in this assumption. We continued with a general discussion around music, which led to Ryan saying:-]
Ryan: Mainstream has gone for the simplest common denominator, to create a world vision. I feel that mainstream pop coming out of LA is influenced by China and more like Asian pop, almost homogenised.
Johannes: It’s interesting.
TPA: Is the album selling well?
Johannes: Yes, I’ve just come back from the post office shipping out CDs. Music is changing and not many are buying CDs over downloads, though vinyl is coming back and we are hoping to do some vinyl. But you can’t rely on downloads for an income, you have to do the whole range of formats.
TPA: I still like the physical product; the artwork, the lyrics, something tangible.
Johannes: We’re with you on that, we focus on the high definition, FLACs and some 96KHz Wavs.
TPA: Will the third album have a name? Or will you be sticking to a number? It worked fine for Peter Gabriel.
Johannes: It’s a secret Tony!
Ryan: I definitely don’t want to repeat myself, each album different, each its own thing.
TPA: Prog Magazine said that Ryan came to prog from having never heard any, and suggested it was a steep learning curve.
Ryan: The article was a little lacking in that area. I was always exposed to music, I just didn’t know a lot of “prog” at that time when Johannes came and asked me to join the project. But I was always more into composing odd time rhythms and stuff. The stuff I did in Nashville was more musically geared to pop, and I had just started working in pop music, that’s where my manager and publicist were taking me. So the article made me sound like I was I pop writer who had discovered prog and it blew my mind, and now I’m here. But in actuality I’ve always been against the formats of mainstream music, to be more of an artist and try new things that haven’t been done.
TPA: We had a discussion around influences, past and present, there are little keys and bows to the past, but Perfect Beings are very much a now band.
Johannes: What we are trying to do is very much make music in the present.
TPA: Yes, I very much got that you bow to the past but produce music in the here and now.
Johannes: From our live performances people have said to me “I didn’t realise you guys were so heavy, because the music sounds so light, it doesn’t sound so rock‘n’roll on the record”. But live, there is power there.
[I asked Johannes for a quote to finish and he chose this on the anniversary of John Lennon’s death (the interview was conducted on the 8th December).]
Johannes: “The power of music is that it short circuits the mind and penetrates our soma, it makes us feel a message that we may not grasp or even understand intellectually, it doesn’t seek to convince, but disposes us to embrace a deeper feeling, a feeling from which perhaps flower like may emerge a more articulate and grounded understanding of the message.” I read that this morning and I really liked it.
TPA: One of the elements that came from the TPA melting pot was that Perfect Beings have a hint of what The Beatles may have produced had they gone on and become more “progressive”.
Johannes: That’s nice, thank you.
Once beyond the initial communication problems I thoroughly enjoyed this interview, Ryan Hurtgen and Johannes Luley providing some insightful replies to the questions. Over a month on – and sorry that it has taken so long guys – my opinion and appreciation of the album continues to grow, to the point where this unpaid, tight-fisted hack is prepared to part with cash for a hard copy. I think you should too.