In November last year TPA’s Leo Trimming met with This Winter Machine at HRH Prog in North Wales, prior to their performance, and interviewed the majority of the band (second guitarist Graham Garbett had not yet arrived). The conversation ranged from the theme of their debut album, the influences of bands like Rush and Marillion, the effect of line-up changes and the writing and the recording of their imminent new album A Tower of Clocks. They talked about ‘alienation and loss’… and had quite a few laughs along the way… like you do!
TPA: Hi, nice to meet you. Good luck with your show at HRH Prog. Tell people why they should be listening to This Winter Machine?
Al Winter (Vocalist): We’re REALLY close to suicide!
TPA: I ask that because there’s quite a few Prog bands out there so what is it about This Winter Machine you think stands out?
Mark Numan (Keyboards): I don’t see us in the true vein as what others regard as pure ‘Prog’. If I was on the outside looking in (which I usually am on keyboards!) I see us in similar style to Marillion or later Genesis, with that crossover appeal from ‘Prog’ into mainstream soft rock music. I think that’s what appeals to a lot of people.
Al: We’ve got strong hooks, strong melodies – pop hooks in a lot of places.
TPA: That’s what I find. After Tomorrow Comes particularly appeals to me – such a catchy song.
Al: Yeah, and it’s still nearly 8 minutes long.
TPA: It doesn’t feel like that.
Al: It’s because although we’ve got a huge number of influences we’re like a Venn diagram with lots of crossover – Marillion is a big one, also a smattering of other bands like Rush as well, who also reached the charts with songs like Spirit Of Radio, and it was important for them to have catchy songs. Marillion obviously had Kayleigh and Lavender. We’re not trying to be a pop band, but we don’t shy away from melodies. It’s important for us that people like it the first time they hear a song. How many times have people recommended a Prog CD and said ‘Don’t make your mind up on first listen – you need 3 or 4 listens before it clicks’.
TPA: I certainly didn’t find that with This Winter Machine.
Al: We’re not trying to be anything actually. We have no main songwriter. It just seems to come out that way. When we were asked to define ourselves we said ‘Melodic Neo-Prog’. If such a template exists I don’t think it’s a bad thing to be melodic and accessible.
TPA: I think some in this genre seem obsessed with the idea it all has to be completely new and different, which is an attitude I don’t think you find in other genres. You tread in paths that have been walked before but you do it in your own stylish way.
Al: We’ve never set out to copy other bands.
Andy Milner (Drums): It’s whatever comes out.
Peter Priestley (Bass): We take the influences of ‘Progressive’ rock in the true sense of the word, but we don’t fall into thinking ‘this bit has to be in 13:8’, or ‘let’s put a Dream Theater bit in’, or ‘make this a bit Gentle Giant’. It’s very organic, pouring in from one pot into another.
TPA: You’ve got a new album out soon. Which song from your debut album The Man Who Never Was would you pick to try to persuade someone to buy the new album?
Mark: I would suggest the title track. It does seem to have a bit of everything. That’s what hooked me in.
Scott Owens (Guitar): If someone was from more of a rock background I’d give them Fractured because it has everything in there – solos, riffs.
TPA: I particularly like the keyboards in Lullaby.
Mark: Thank You!
TPA: You’ve had a change in the line-up and now have two guitarists. Why?
Al: We bifurcated! That original line-up was actually only together a short space of time. We decided to record very early on for a new band. We all brought music – I brought The Man Who Never Was, Mark brought After Tomorrow Comes and a couple we all wrote together. Essentially we did everything in about 3 or 4 months. We only did 3 or 4 gigs with Gary (original guitarist) and we decided it wasn’t working out for him or us. I don’t think we lost anything from the change. We’ve gained from having two guitarists with different influences, and from having a different drummer. Marcus left last year. I consider this to be THE line-up for This Winter Machine.
TPA: How have the changes affected you as a live band? I saw you at Summer’s End Festival last year – was that the old line-up?
Peter: Summer’s End was with the old drummer. From my point of view in the rhythm section we now sound like a band. We don’t sound like a set of songwriters sat around in a room. We’re much more direct now – there’s a better vibe on stage. There’s a lot more clarity, drive, feel and groove – all things that Andy (the current drummer) contributes, which we didn’t have so much before.
Al: When we used to go to write a song, or a song started to form, certain band members used to pull back a bit, but we don’t have to now. The thing is to serve the song, whereas before we had to try to write with some limitations. Now it’s much freer and more organic, without having to hold back.
Mark: I think certain band members came into the band not really having written much before. Perhaps they’d been involved in covers acts playing songs by other artists whereas we were writing from scratch which proved troublesome at times.
TPA: That leads me on to the writing. How does that work? Do you all contribute?
Scott: It’s a mixture. Sometimes Al has lyrics already written, sometimes it’s the music first.
Mark: I’m always sat at the piano… which is not always the best thing when you’re driving!
There’s always little riffs and melodies coming out. Sometimes they come out as complete songs, or 2 or 3 minute sections which we develop from there.
Al: I take care of the lyrics and melodies, and it’s surprising how many times what I have already written matches what Mark has written, or vice versa. We all throw in ideas. There’s no sort of ‘this is my song’. Apart from the initial After Tomorrow Comes and The Man Who Never Was everything else has been collaborative. I don’t think anything would sound the same if we didn’t have everybody throwing in their ideas. I think it’s important. None of us are precious. It’s a genuine pleasure to get in a room and start to write something. It comes together quite quickly. We don’t preen things for hours and hours, and weeks and weeks. We tend to throw out ideas and it works organically.
Mark: We’ve just completed the last song on the new album in about two days.
Al: It’s called This Heart’s Alive. We’ve released a couple of songs from the new album – In Amber and Justified, and they both sound quite different. With This Heart’s Alive we recorded it in one evening, and came back and mixed in another evening, having written it in only a few hours. I think sometimes in progressive music there’s a tendency to try to make it as complicated as possible. I’m not arguing we’re The Beatles or only play three chords, but we have an unspoken understanding that the song comes first.
TPA: You have a new album out soon. What’s it called and when is it out?
Al: It’s called A Tower Of Clocks. It’s 99% recorded. We’re back in the studio next week to hopefully finish things off.
TPA: You’ve been touring some of it already. Does ‘road testing’ it live change it when recording?
Mark: A couple of songs have changed. The opening instrumental track Herald has changed after doing it live.
TPA: You played that at last year’s Summer’s End Festival. I enjoyed it.
Mark: It’s been re-done as it had developed so much live since then.
Peter: The other songs we’ve written since then have evolved so much it made Herald feel a bit stale, so we tweaked it.
Scott: It’s been very well received even though it’s very different now.
Al: It’s what bands used to do in the ’70s. My favourite band Rush used to go out on a tour and their tour would be playing the album that wasn’t released yet.
TPA: Dark Side Of The Moon was toured extensively before release. You seem to be really determined to play as much as you can live. How challenging is it to get gigs and get the punters there?
Mark: The challenging part is that we’re all working as well, and there’s six of us to gather which is hard.
Al: The surprising thing for us is we started playing to 20, 30 or 40 people – but then we played the Robin 2 in Bilston and we’d heard horror stories about good bands playing to only small audiences. So we were pleased to have over 130 at the Robin 2 and 180 turn up for another gig.
TPA: That’s impressive for a new band.
Al: It’s because we’re f…ing excellent!!
Al: We’re new and the debut album sold really well and was well received. The anticipation for the second album is quite high. Provided we don’t blow it we’re trying to build on it. We’ve all done this before – I was in a band called This Other Eden. I think what we’re doing right this time is we’re not trying to do anything, maybe other than write good music, get it out there, and get it to as many people as possible. We don’t have a game plan, we don’t have business meetings.
Scott: It’s got a lot to do with the fans, who have been brilliant.
Al: Yeah – spreading the word and getting others involved for good numbers at the gigs.
Peter: The thing that freaked me out is that there’s a guy from Texas who’s flown to England twice to see us. He saw us in Leeds, and then came all the way down to Southampton to see us.
Al: …In a Limousine! No word of a lie. He flew in from Texas, hired a limo to drive to Southampton, then got in his limo in his cowboy boots and went home.
TPA: Wow! That’s commitment. Perhaps he should fly you out to Texas some time?
Al: Well, he has offered!
TPA: Do you have any plans to play in Europe? There’s quite a Prog scene in Holland.
Mark: We keep getting asked. We’re hoping – fingers crossed.
Al: We get a lot of airplay in Holland. Europe is the next thing for us – next year. We just need to get this new album out. We love the artwork, we love the songs, we’re really proud of it. We think it will be well received. What do you think of In Amber?
TPA: I haven’t heard it yet.
Al: You downloaded it this week.
TPA: I even paid for it!
Al: Did you? You downloaded one for free and paid for the other this week.
TPA: You can tell you’re a Yorkshireman!
TPA: I definitely paid for one – was that for Justified? The other one must have been free… so I suppose I didn’t actually pay for In Amber… (I’ll edit that bit out!)
Al: And you haven’t even listened to it yet!
TPA: No, I’m a very busy bloke. Like you I have a real life outside of Prog!
Al: I’m only teasing.
TPA: I have been listening to your first album a lot – almost obsessively this week because I knew I was interviewing you and it really grew on me. I’ve always liked it, but this week I was really taken with it and keep re-playing it, especially After Tomorrow Comes and Fractured’.
Mark: Even those sounds now sound very different live.
Al: The dynamics are very different now. There’s only Mark, Peter and myself from the original line-up. The other three have changed and the drums make a massive difference.
TPA: I think people underestimate the difference a drummer makes to a band’s sound.
Al: I agree. You couldn’t find a more different player than Andy from our original drummer, Marcus. It’s weird – every time we get interviewed we’re asked ‘Why has your album been such a success?’ I think it’s because a lot of people must think we’re not that good, and I always think ‘Why are you asking me that?’ It’s like ‘How come you got that girlfriend?’ It’s that kind of attitude.
TPA: I think it’s obvious why it’s been a success.
Al: Why do you think it’s been a success?
TPA: Because it appeals to a market that enjoys that melodic, accessible rock. It has overtones of the ‘classic era’ of Prog, but you’re not slavishly copying it. I think some bands are painfully trying too hard to be 1973-era Genesis or whatever.
Al: There are some brilliant bands. I just wish they would get an idea. I enjoy them but I think just do something of your own. There’s so many bands out there with brilliant musicians who just want to be stuck in 1974. It’s really odd – I just don’t get it.
TPA: Al, you wrote all the lyrics for the debut album. They seem to suggest you’ve been through some pretty dark things?
Al: No, even though I sing about ‘I’ and ‘me’ the lyrics are about a character. They’re observations. I don’t write very well saying ‘You’ and ‘he’.
TPA: I’m relieved – I was going to offer you counselling!
Al: Well, I’ll take it.
Mark: Wait until you’ve heard some of the new stuff
TPA: I’ll look forward to it. What’s the lyrical direction of the new album? Is there a theme?
Al: There is, yeah…
TPA: Is that it? Is that all I’m going to get?!
Al: A lot of people don’t get that the debut album is a concept album – it’s all linked together. It’s about alienation and loss. The new one is much more broad… how can I explain it?
Andy: … More alienation and loss?!
Al: It’s not really. The new album is not that dark, is it? (asking his band mates)
Peter: I think the new one is much more accessible.
Al: Lyrically it’s much more upbeat. I don’t think it’s as downbeat as the first album… apart from When We Were Young, which was originally called The Widower!
Al: I think the catchiest one is called ‘Syphilis’!
TPA: I’ll look forward to that one on the remix version.
Andy: The Scratch and Sniff Mix!
TPA: More seriously, what’s it about?
Al: It’s a concept album about a journey with a character making observations… but I really don’t want to say too much right now. People will take what they want from it as well. Wait for the new album.
TPA: That’s probably a good place to stop. I’ve really enjoyed meeting you. Is there any last thing you want to say before we end?
TPA: Thanks! It’s been a pleasure and good luck with the gig and new album.
[You can read Leo Trimming’s review of the new This Winter Machine album – A Tower Of Clocks HERE.]
Our thanks to Stan Siarkiewicz for the live photos.