Belgian Neo-prog rockers M!ndgames recently released their fourth album, Paradox Of Choice. With a strong collection of symphonic songs and a hungry attitude, members Bart Schram, Tom Truyers, Maximilian von Wullerstorff, Benny Petak and Sandro Starita speak to Jan Andrée and explain why this record should appeal to both new and die-hard fans.
M!ndgames has been around for more than 15 years now. Is it as enjoyable to play and record together as when you first started?
Benny: We still enjoy playing together but like every band there are always some issues to discuss and with the 5 of us we still can work everything out.
Bart: When the band was formed in 1998, it took another 4 years before we started to record our first album (International Daylight). It was pure fun how we composed. We played with modulations, extraterrestrial time signatures, used unexpected transitions, I wrote surreal lyrics that just came to mind, but sometimes it didn’t mean anything… In hindsight we exaggerated a little bit, to my opinion. But we thought anything was possible. Since Actors in a Play we took things more seriously. And for me writing lyrics became harder. But that was because I wanted to have it good.
Tom: Yes, now even more than when we started. In the beginning we only had our motivation. Now we have 4 albums, lots of supporting contacts, collaborations with distribution centra and webzines, online visibility, our motivation of course, and… fans!
If you had to name one band or artist that inspire you more than anyone else today, what would you say and why?
Sandro: Among many sources of inspiration, I still find Iron Maiden at the top. Even if you don’t like their music you have to acknowledge their honesty, consistency and energy. How many bands would issue their first double studio album, with a few songs over 10min, after almost 40 years of career? And to be honest, the image of Steve Harris pointing his bass guitar is still an extremely powerful one.
Bart: Vangelis still inspires me, because his music breaths eternity. It feels like he receives his music directly from the cosmos or something. Timeless!
Benny: Genesis for the obvious reasons.
Tom: Hans Zimmer, no doubt. His composition skills are phenomenal. He knows perfectly how to translate feelings, moods, situations into music, and how to create images with his music.
Max: Hmm if it’s only one then it has to be Pink Floyd. If you ask me the same question in 6 months my answer will probably be different.
M!ndgames has always had a very distinct and recognizable sound. Originally, did it come natural or as a result of much compromise between the members?
Bart: I think we found an unspoken formula since Actors in a Play. That was the first album where we defined our sound. Still there are arguments during the creation, it’s normal. We try to polish things until everyone is satisfied. But we always end up with a M!ndgames composition. Because we made it with the 5 of us.
Tom: The recognizable sound in general is something natural I guess. We don’t talk explicitly about how it should sound. For Paradox of Choice we wanted to create something between Actors In A Play and MMX. We talked about it when we started writing new songs. But we don’t evaluate each composition, if we don’t like it, we change it if possible. Now it appears to be closer to Actors In A Play. That’s more because of the compositions of the songs, not because of a deliberate discussion about sound.
All your albums are deeply rooted in the prog rock tradition as well as very modern, with elements of pop and classical music. Do you ever think about going in a certain direction when creating new music, emphasizing one element or the other?
Benny: It’s more like “go with the flow” and we will see where it ends. Our minds work in a similar way, I think.
Max: Me no. Everyone has ideas and everyone changes or adds to them.
Bart: In the past 15 years we sometimes tried different approaches of composing. i.e.: start with lyrics instead of music, write down a melody on paper… most of the time those things failed. Usually it starts with Tom playing some chords in a certain sound or Sandro (Rudy in the past) comes up with an idea for a riff and then Benny gives the rhythm he feels, and then the magic happens.
Tom: It depends, when I’ve got an idea for the main theme of the song, I’m pretty sure about the general character of the song. What I play and the selection of instruments/sounds I use to make it explicit, depends on that character of that song. But it happens that I have no clue about a song which already lasts 4 minutes.
How would you describe the typical working progress of M!ndgames when preparing for a new album?
Sandro: Paradox of Choice is a special case, as it was the first time that this line-up worked together. When I joined there were only a couple of songs already worked out, so we got to know each other while composing the new material in a kind of “trial and error” way. In most of the cases the music, including the vocal melodies, is jointly developed from a riff, a chord progression or a more developed idea coming from one of us. We jam a lot.
Max: We jam on ideas and develop them further.
Tom: Sometimes it’s an unstructured rollercoaster of sounds, chords and rhythms.
Max: Sometimes we have parts of songs that are finished but don’t know what to do with it, so we shelve them until we find a song into which they can be incorporated.
Sandro: And when something good starts shaping we stop and start polishing it. The lyrics are normally worked out by Bart once the music is more or less finished.
Tom: In preparation of the recordings we have to work on different levels at the same time (recordings, artwork, promotion, teasers …). Then we have a more structured schedule.
Bart: We may have a few songs we like, but maybe not enough to fill a full album. Then we book a studio. So, the deadline has been set, there’s no way back. And that motivates us in our creativity. It has been like that with Actors in a Play, MMX, Paradox of Choice … It will always be like that. M!ndgames needs that.
Your new member, guitarist Sandro Starita, has some big shoes to fill after Rudy Vander Veken, who played with you for many years. How has Sandro’s presence affected the band musically?
Benny: Sandro affected the band in a positive way and not only by wearing “Italian shoes” but also with ideas and musically thinking.
Max: He integrated very easily into the band and even though his style is different to Rudy’s, it was pretty seamless. Change can bring about good things.
Bart: I can tell you, it was a difficult time when Rudy left. We even thought for a moment it could be the end of the band. A few guitar players came and left because it didn’t feel right. The chemistry didn’t work. With Sandro we were back in business. It felt right. He’s a wonderful person to work with. And after all, having the right personality is as important as being a good musician.
Sandro: Rudy was key in shaping the sound of the band for the previous album, and is style and approach are quite different from mine. However, the new album still sounds as M!ndgames, because further than Bart’s voice the other key elements of the music, i.e. power, orchestration, dynamicity, melody, are still clearly there.
You recorded the new album in a very short period of time. Is M!ndgames an extremely well-organized band?
Bart: In organizing, you can say in all honesty that all credits go to Tom. He plans weeks in advance. He does all the budget calculation. He created the website, maintains it. Does the social media as well. He stays in touch with our contacts. And after the album is released, he does the sales. I don’t think I would be capable to follow-up all this. I suffer from ADD…
What were the biggest challenges in making and releasing the album?
Bart: Finding a studio, finding the right title for the album. It’s sometimes a titanic struggle until the “democratic beast” has decided. Sometimes it’s not a bed of roses and skittles. But it’s worthwhile. It indicates we are still passionate about what we do.
Benny: Like with every other album we try to do better than the one before.
Max: Definitely piecing together the compositions and preparing for the studio. Recording was a very smooth and fast process.
Tom: While recording the songs the biggest challenge for me was listening to it with a set of different ears. A recording is a different product than a live gig. So you have to focus on other elements in the songs. The biggest challenge in releasing the album: how to inform your neighbor’s mother-in-law we’ve got a new album.
Which songs from Paradox of Choice are your own favourites and why?
Sandro: If I really have to pick one it’d be “Sands Of Time”, because of the dynamics of the music which match very well the lyrics, in my view among Bart’s best. It will surely be one of the best tunes to play live.
Benny: “Requiem for a Dancing World”, for me is the most M!ndgames-like song. It’s got everything.
Tom: “Requiem for a Dancing World” for obvious reasons. “Revenge of the Wizard” because it’s big, bombastic, extravagant, it’s a musical cartoon.
Bart: “Requiem for a Dancing World”, because of the bombastic symphonic arrangements. A piece that brings me into raptures. And “The Sands of Time”, where I could express my genuine feelings about mid-life. It also has a strong bridge at the end of the song that refers to the piano intro. Always goosebumps when I hear this.
Max: “Age of Plenty” is my favourite because I like it the most. It isn’t too long and it has a bit of everything.
Can you recall the proudest moment in the recording process or something that turned out better than you hoped?
Benny: My moment is always at the end when I hear the result after the mix and mastering, and when it gives me goosebumps.
Tom: I’m satisfied when what comes out of the studio monitors exceeds the images I had in my head. Yes, we had moments like that!
Max: Working with Pierre was a treat.
Sandro: There are various moments that have come out pretty nice, for example the “vaudeville” section in Revenge of the Wizard, the atmosphere of Context? Anyone? with the additional mandolin, the rollercoaster of From a Drone’s Perspective. We are very satisfied with the overall sound of the album, Pierre Dozin did a very good job in capturing the dynamics and nuances in the studio. All songs sound powerful yet you can easily hear what each instrument is doing.
Your previous three albums can be found on Spotify, but you have decided not to add Paradox of Choice there. Why?
Bart: Well, Spotify is an interesting medium to promote your music. We already heard of people who discovered us with Spotify. But as you may know, selling an album gets harder and harder every time. So we decided Paradox of Choice not to release on Spotify. To stimulate the sales of physical copies, and of course iTunes is OK as well. We’re aware of the fact that we never will be rock’n’roll millionaires. But we need to have at least our expenses covered.
Tom: Prog will never be mainstream music, but it’s more and more subject of commercial trends. Releasing a new album costs money, and of course we’d like to refund our investment. On Spotify you don’t buy the album, you pay for a license giving you access to a digital copy of the songs. Only a few percentages of this license go to the author. That’s why.
Bart, you write the lyrics of M!ndgames. A typical theme of yours is man’s struggle in a sometimes overwhelming society. An obvious example of this is the song “The Age of Plenty”. Can you tell me something about your thoughts behind it?
Bart: It’s starts with the feeling that there is too much going on around you. Especially when you’re highly sensitive. It’s an abundance of impressions. After that there are so many things in life you have to choose from, and that doesn’t make you happy, quite the contrary. Some people want it all. They make a choice, but on the other hand they don’t want to live with the consequences. Maybe we need to slow down a bit. It’s difficult to gain a clear view of it all.
“From a Drone’s Perspective” is one of several of your songs that seem to celebrate and encourage the ability to believe in oneself and choose one’s own path. “Are you ready to rise above?” is a recurring line. This seems to be an important message for you?
Bart: Yes, it is indeed an important message. I’m an atheist. And certainly in these days it’s important to develop an independent scientific attitude. Not that we have to believe in what scientists say. But simply, all what they tell you, go check this out for yourself. Read! Educate yourself! Discover! Explore! Albert Einstein hated authority. Because, if an important scientist comes up with a new discovery, he writes a publication. Don’t believe him because he’s an important person. But rather, go check this out for yourself! Does gravity exist? Take an apple and release it. See what happens. The drone in this story is a symbol for: you navigate and control something that makes you see things from a different perspective. Above it all. By the end of the album, when you became aware of spying technology (Whistle-Blower), you had to deal with too many choices in this world (Age of Plenty), environmental issues (Requiem for a Dancing World), the evil of social media (Context? Anyone?), the awareness of the limited time we live on this planet (The Sands of Time)… you are asked: “Are you ready to rise above?”. Evolve as a human being, in order to let humanity evolve.
“Revenge of the Wizard” really stands out as a tragicomical track, enhanced by the original musical arrangement. Was it a difficult song to put together?
Sandro: It was not difficult, in the sense that as for the other cases we had the song itself indicating the direction. When we started developing the music for this song, we realized it demanded a very powerful and ominous atmosphere. Tom had this theatrical section laying around, and it fit in perfectly with the mood of the song, followed by a quite aggressive and sinister solo section. At this point Bart had the great idea to turn some clichés on their heads with the title and the lyrics, adding the tragicomical effect while keeping the song powerful and interesting.
“Truth is a word we’re still trying to define”. Would it be fair to call “The Whistle-Blower” your most political song so far?
Bart: You could interpret this as a political issue, but I never meant it as such. I think it’s the technology that makes it possible for everyone to spy on you. Not only governments. We want the world to change. But at the same time we have to sacrifice a lot of freedom and privacy in order to feel safe. And then there is the truth… who is telling you the truth? What is the truth anyway? Take for instance climate change. It’s proven by many studies. And then there are other lobbies who to tell you the exact opposite. In this media landscape of complete disinformation, it’s hard to define the truth. Hmm… yes, it may be political after all.
There’s something about the approach of “Paradox of Choice”. It seems to be an album that could be appreciated by anyone with an interest in melodic rock, as well as your most loyal fans. Would you agree and how would you explain this?
Max: Hard to say, but we like to make music where melodies are more important than technical skills. If a song has melodies it is usually friendly to the ears of a wide audience.
Bart: You can label our music as Prog, Neo-Prog, Symphonic Rock and so on. But I know people who don’t know anything about prog or whatsoever. They simply like our music. If it is the case that we leave our “niche”, and that our music grows to a broader appeal, then I see that as a compliment!
Sandro: Indeed, so far we have received good feedback from people with different tastes, including and beyond the die-hard fans. The fact that the album can be enjoyed at various levels is certainly a good thing, we may take it as a compliment, although it was not a conscious decision to move in this direction. Actually, Actors In A Play and MMX are not overly complex albums either, and the melodic component has always been a trademark of M!ndgames. We want each song to deliver an interesting story, told by with both the music and the lyrics, and we put our efforts in this. After all, we firmly believe that Excellence is Never an accident.
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