Rocket Scientists’ keyboard maestro Erik Norlander has been involved with, amongst others, John Payne’s version of Asia and Roswell Six during his career as well as working on the albums of his wife Lana Lane. He also finds time to offer his support to the Bob Moog Foundation and has released a string of solo releases, the latest of which, Surreal, was recently reviewed at TPA by Professor Mark. Here Mark talks to Erik about his work.
Erik, could you discuss the decision process that goes into creating a new album title and the type of songs you want to include> Is your hope each time you write a new album to reach a new audience or break new ground with an instrument?
I actually work completely the opposite way. The songs come first, then the album concept, then the album title. I write music all the time, often without any pre-conceived notions of what album or what project the music is for. It’s truly music for its own sake. Then as a specific body of work comes together, I will see unifying threads that link certain songs together. That is how I build an album, especially in the case of my solo work. For other projects, such as my Rocket Scientists band or producing for my wife, Lana Lane, I will go in and draw from the well. I will find demos of compositions that I think will suit the current project, and then I bring them in accordingly. As for the album title, I always want that to be a synopsis of the music. What are the best words or word that summarizes the album, the body of work? It might be a song title, it might a lyric. Or it might be an over-arching feeling that encompasses the album. In the case of my Surreal album, it is all three of those things!
Describe the evolution of designing the title song for Surreal, to fit Lana Lane’s vocal range and interest.
I wrote the song, Surreal, without a specific vocalist in mind. I first wrote and demoed it with just my own shaky, raspy baritone. But I quickly realized that I wanted a “real singer,” as I like to say. Someone that could deliver the lyric with more precision and control. I know so many amazing singers, but Lana was the one that I thought could deliver this one the best. As it appears on the album, the different verses and chorus are in different keys, and each one modulates. But I originally wrote all in one key. Well, one key that modulates within the progression, A minor up to E major with the line progression in the bass going up in half steps. Then when I decided that I wanted Lana to sing it, I picked the best key for her which ended up starting in F minor instead of A minor. But with her dynamic vocal range, I thought it was a missed opportunity to keep in the same key for the whole song. She emotes differently depending on the register. So I thought it would be cool to start out in a low, spooky register, almost a bit with a Karen Carpenter vibe, then gradually creep up higher so that by the end of the second chorus she is at the top of her range with more of an Ann Wilson-style arena feel. Not that we tried to actually emulate those singers — we didn’t. I only use them as a comparison for the resulting tonality and atmosphere that came from the key shifting.
Your music is full of imagery. What types of locations or events inspire you to write music?
Thanks for that. I really work hard to fill my music with images, and not just the vocal music! There is a recurring chordal movement on the album that is very western European-feeling to me. It’s this minor ninth to major chord resolution that just sounds like you are spending a rainy afternoon in London or an evening at a Paris cafe. It appears in the chorus section of Suitcase and Umbrella and also in the aerobic piano verse section of The Party’s Overture. I also use it in Surreal a couple of times. I originally imagined that chord progression on accordion. Really! I know it sounds like a joke, but it’s not! However, as the album came together, playing this progression on grand piano was really more suitable to the vibe of the rest of the album. I think the accordion would have been awesome, but it would have taken the album in a different direction. Maybe more folksy and acoustic. With all of the great synth work on the album, I think that would have been just too much of a contrast, too eclectic. But who knows. Maybe I’ll record an acoustic version of these songs someday, and you’ll hear that accordion after all!
Describe your involvement with the Bob Moog Foundation and how you hope to keep Bob’s legacy evolving.
My role with the Foundation is really a supportive one. I do whatever is needed. Michelle Moog-Koussa, Bob’s daughter, is a great friend. We’re about the same age, and we have a lot in common. I knew her dad, Bob, the great inventor, and I even tried to work with him on a synthesizer design project in the late ’90s (the Alesis Andromeda), but he was already quite busy with the Moog Voyager and couldn’t do it, despite his interest. We stayed in touch, and he did actually provide some good guidance and advice. He would send me faxes with sometimes seemingly random questions like, “How are you keeping the oscillators from locking?” Things like that. In that way, he was a great mentor. I can’t say I knew him super well, and I’m not an electrical engineer. But his work has always been a real inspiration to me, and I was glad to know him, even if just for a little while. With the Bob Moog Foundation, I have advised on historical subjects when there is something I know a bit about (although Michelle, Marc Doty and her team know plenty more than I do, usually!), and I also love to help with fund raising projects — everything from concerts to advising on tribute sound library projects like the MOTU Encore Soundbank to providing equipment for photo shoots, calendars, artwork. Through this, I even got to play a concert with the great Keith Emerson when we opened a “Legacy of Moog” museum exhibit down near San Diego, California a few years ago. In general, though, I just really believe in the cause, and I help however I am able.
The passing of Keith Emerson will go down as one of the most tragic events of 2016. With fewer great synthesizer wizards like you and Keith around, is the Moog Foundation or other groups helping to train the next generation? Are there any prodigies you would like to mention?
The Bob Moog Foundation has a great educational program called Dr. Bob’s SoundSchool. I’m not really involved in that directly aside from helping with fund raising efforts for it. They are teaching young children about the science of sound, the intersection of art and science, and hopefully that will spark their interest to learn about synthesizers and how to play and program them as legitimate musical instruments. I don’t know of any specific prodigies to name, but I’m sure they are out there!
Of all the synthesizers and instruments you have played which is your favorite?
The original Minimoog Model D, without a doubt. It’s the best synthesizer ever made, and probably the best that ever will be made. After that, I should mention the Alesis Andromeda that I helped co-design. It’s a real analog synthesizer with 16 voices, each an homage to Bob Moog and classic synthesizer history with elements from the Oberheim SEM, Yamaha CS-80 and other great instruments. I only wish it was not made out of plastic. One day I’ll probably rebuild a couple of them with proper metal and wood to better ensure their longevity. That’s the thing about the ’70s Minimoog — it was built like a tank. That’s why 40+ years later, they are still around and making music.
With whom would you consider collaborating as a fellow Moog or synthesizer expert on an album or EP in the future?
Wow, that’s a tough question as I don’t really think that way. I always like to collaborate with people who do something different than me. A lot of friends have commented that I don’t really work with many “progressive” musicians, that I usually work with hard rock and metal musicians. Even on Surreal, the main guitarist is Alastair Greene, and he’s a great blues guitarist, not really a prog guy at all, even though he plays with the Alan Parsons Project which is arguably a classic prog band (I think they are great, however you classify them). Alastair said from the beginning, “You know I’m not a prog guy!” But that wasn’t what I wanted. I always want to work with just great musicians, and they can bring their own style and influence to my music. Another great guitarist on the album is Jeff Kollman who plays on the title track. Jeff is a great blues-fusion guitarist with a super deep musicality. Jeff toured with my band in 2014, and there are great videos on YouTube of this. Jeff is also not exactly what I’d call a “prog guitarist,” but he is a phenomenal player with a great artistic vision. That’s the important thing to me. I’ve never really thought about working with another keyboardist. I guess if I was to work with another keyboardist creatively, they should ideally be a lot different than me. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Who have been your favorite collaborators?
There really are many, but Mark McCrite and Don Schiff from Rocket Scientists are obvious standouts just by the evidence of how many albums we’ve made together. Not just Rocket Scientists albums, but of course these guys play on many of my solo albums and also on the Lana Lane albums. So there is definite chemistry there. We’ve been friends for 30+ years now too, and that also illustrates something. The Surreal rhythm section of Mark Matthews and Nick LePar is also a super-strong collaboration. We made The Galactic Collective album in 2009, and we continued to tour it through 2014! I thought it would be a one-off thing, make the album, then play a few shows to support it. But it just kept continuing. Five years later, we were still asked to play gigs and festivals. This was very much a motivation to make the Surreal album, to take that work we had done with The Galactic Collective and push it to the next level. I’m so proud of what we have accomplished with both of those albums. Percussionist Greg Ellis is another long-time friend and collaborator. Greg is the drummer on my first two solo albums, Threshold and Into the Sunset, two very different albums! He also plays on my 2004 Seas of Orion album and on several Rocket Scientists albums including Oblivion Days, Looking Backward and the recent Supernatural Highways from 2014. Greg and I connect musically in a very interesting way. He is all about the groove and the humanity of acoustic instruments and their connection to the psyche. He has some great, deep philosophies about that. I am much more in the electronic world with my synthesizers. But when we work together, it is so easy and natural. It’s the perfect intersection. Ah, I must also mention my wife, the amazing Lana Lane. That collaboration is so easy and effortless, I almost forgot to note it!
What are your favorite top ten albums of all time?
You can go to this link and see a complete, detailed interview I did with my friend, Mike Popke, about this very subject:
Which music from 2016 are you listening to regularly?
The only music from 2016 that I am listening to regularly apart from Surreal is the Last in Line’s Heavy Crown album as we’re getting ready to do 30+ tour dates starting at the end of October. This is a great band to be a part of, and something that’s a little surprising. It took me a little while to definie the keyboard role in the band as it is so guitars-oriented with the metal/hard rock base. But the chemistry of all the musicians is so great, it came together really nicely, and I really enjoy working with those guys. Even though it’s a metal band, I still get to bring my symphonic influences to a lot of the intros and outros. And then interacting musically with guitarist Vivian Campbell is an exercise in the Jon Lord school of rock Hammond organ playing. Maybe with a few Keith Emerson riffs thrown in here and there for good measure!
What are the major advantages/disadvantages of how music has evolved from when you started as a student?
Are there any advantages now? It’s so hard now compared to the music world of the ’70s. Back then, the music industry was bigger than the film industry. But now, music has become “content.” It has been devalued so much, and in many ways, it is a tool to sell computer and technology hardware like iPhones. People will pay $500 for an iPhone, but it’s hard to get the majority of consumers to pay $1 for a song download. Really? Is that what it’s come to? I often say that Steve Jobs must have lost a girlfriend to a musician at some point, because it seems like it was his life’s work to destroy the music industry and the mystique of the art of rock music. And don’t get me started on streaming services. That is just another scam where a small group of people are lining their pockets at the expense of the artists who create the … ahem … “content.” I have to tip my hat to Taylor Swift. I’m of course not a real fan of her music (I don’t know that I’ve ever even heard any!). But the way she has stood up to the streaming service scams is super admirable. I will definitely buy her a Diet Coke if I ever get the chance.
If you were teaching a new music student, what are the most important decisions/tools they would need to make or acquire to create music today and into the future?
Without a doubt, ear training and a good sense of time are the two most essential things for any musician. Whether you are playing a synthesizer, a flute or a kazoo, it is critical to know how to listen and process what you are hearing. Also it is essential to be able to play in time with a consistent tempo and groove. This doesn’t mean you have to play robotically. In fact, it’s the opposite of that. When you have a good command of time in music, you can push and pull and play as emotionally as you want but never lose the pulse, never disrupt the flow. But when a person plays out of time and it is clear they are simply not in control of it, it becomes unlistenable. So learning about scales, harmony, melody and intervals plus embracing the concept of time and tempo, these are things that every musicians must master. Play a synth, play a guitar, play the drums, it doesn’t matter. But get those elements down no matter what.
Do you plan to tour Surreal?
I definitely do! The rest of 2016 will be filled up with promoting the album and finishing the videos we have shot for it, and then I’m on the road with Last in Line into December. But in 2017, I look forward to taking this music out on the road! We already played half of the album live on my Mexico tour in 2015 with Mark Matthews, Alastair Greene and Greg Ellis, and that really helped the album sound the way it does with such a great live feeling. We actually toured those songs before the album was done, and that massively affected the performances that appear on the final album. I intend to more of that in the future.
What is next in your future recording plans?
I have a lot of live recordings that I have been meaning to go through and mix. Those always get put onto the proverbial back burner to new studio projects. And maybe that will still happen. But I have so many spectacular concert recordings that I’d like to release eventually. I hope I can get to those at some point. And then as far as new studio recordings, let me make a surprise left turn and quote Tom Petty to say, “The future is wide open!”