Metal Resource - August 2002
of you may remember James Byrd from his days as a founding member
of Fifth Angel. James is currently fronting the band Byrd which
also features Michael Flatters on Vocals who is also part of Takara
and Brian Hutchison on Piano, Drums, and Bass. I chatted with James
about his great new album 'Anthem' as well as a few other things.
I hope you enjoy the read! Heavy
Metal Resource: Hi James! I appreciate you taking the time to chat.
The new album is excellent!
Hi Dave, my pleasure, I'm so glad you like 'Anthem'!
HMR: Let's get started by looking at the new
album. The last album 'Flying beyond the 9' did well. How did you
prepare the new album 'Anthem' to build on the success??
Byrd: Well, with
'flying beyond the 9' I knew I had found a way of composing and
producing that I wanted to continue with in terms of instrumentation
and production values. I have a very broad set of musical tastes
which I think my entire recording career back to 1983 tends to reflect.
While this is good from an artistic view point for me, it can make
it hard for people to put a label on you and then fit you into a
category. People seem to like to do this. Personally, I always feel
it's a trap. I don't want to make an album that sounds like Fifth
Angel, I've been there and done that and there's be no artistic
challenge for me in it. Nothing against it, it was valid in the
context of being an honest passionate record at a point in time.
But over the years I've delved into many different approaches to
making albums from different musical perspectives and as I said,
there's a lot of ground covered between albums. I came to feel with
'flying beyond the 9' that by approaching my music from a composer's
point of view and not from a "guitar player's" point of
view, that if I had a full arsenal of symphonic sounds at my disposal,
I could then "unify" the production of diverse approaches
and create a cohesiveness that would make it easier for listeners
to latch onto a common thread. Of course you can never please everyone.
In the past, I've had a couple of reviewers who said and I paraphrase
here- in so many words "well what happened to what you were
doing?This seems like yet another change of direction Mr. Byrd,
why?". Likewise, now that I am taking a symphonic approach
to my production with deliberate choices of instrumentation to bring
together the production values between tracks, once in a while a
critic will say that there's a "sameness" to all the music.
Well, I don't decide to do something based on the opinions of one
or two critics. And from a musical perspective, the tracks on both
'flying beyond the 9' and also on 'Anthem' are very diverse from
one another from a writing perspective. I chose the piano out of
the many instruments used throughout both albums- as a unifying
production value so that I could hopefully enable the listener to
focus on the actual content of the compositions rather than on great
leaps in production values that sometimes distract a listener. So
if I have a philosophy now, it is that what I am doing these days
is bringing all possibilities musically under the broadest and most
open format I can have as a writer/producer, and this would is the
liberal use of symphonic instrumentation to put forward ideas. Most
people "get it", but for me the beauty in it is that I
now have a frame work to work "within" and it does not
feel confining because there are so many possibilities to explore.
HMR: I understand that you had started writing
this album but due to the events of 9/11, you shifted gears a bit.
Byrd: Yes, a total
"shift of gears". I had more than half of the music written
for my follow-up to 'flying beyond the 9' before the September 11th
atrocities in N.Y.C. When the attack happened, I found that I couldn't
continue working on the album. I would come to the studio and look
at the words and music and just draw a blank. I felt nothing for
what I had begun. After two and a half months of this seeming "writer's
block" for continuing with the songs, I decided to scrap the
whole thing and start all over again. It wasn't "writer's block",
I've never actually had that. It was a question of the fact that
I had begun writing an album from a certain psychological perspective,
and the events of September 11th completely destroyed that perspective.
My mood became paranoid, angry, depressed, outraged, frustrated,
probably all of the same feelings everyone else was feeling. So
in starting again, although the album was emotionally very difficult
to make, there was no further feeling of inability to connect with
the music once I acknowledged my need as an artist to deal with
it. The emotional difficulty was only in trying to address these
events and my feelings about them without sinking into a sense of
futility and sadness which overwhelmed the rest of my life. I was
also still suffering from a physical injury which had landed me
first in the hospital and then a wheelchair through the spring of
2001 a spinal injury-. I couldn't actually even play my guitar until
just a few weeks before the recording of 'Anthem' was completed.
I'm pretty much recovered now, but in addition to having my perspective
changed by September 11th, my whole life then seemed upside down
and painful. One of the songs is a thank you to my girl friend for
getting me through some real hell "thank you"-. I'm proud
of 'Anthem' but I hope I never have to make it again if you know
what I mean.
HMR: Yeah, It has been a bit of a tough time
to figure out. The album does come across very well. I was kind
of curious about something. Although you classify yourself as Progressive
Symphonic Metal what sets you apart in your opinion from other artists
who claim the same style??
Byrd: I couldn't
tell you that to be honest. With the last album, reviewers were
comparing what I'm doing to some bands I've never heard like "Rhapsody?"
for example-. Of course I know Uli Roth and he sent me his "prelude
to the symphonic legends" CD when he finished it, but I wouldn't
say that anything in particular is a direct influence on me. I'm
pretty much detached from what the world is up to musically and
am in a world of my own. My only influences as such are rooted in
the 1970's for the most part with a love for bands like Queen, Styx,
Rainbow, and also for song writers like Elton John and Andrew Lloyd
Webber. I used to listen to music seven or eight hours a day as
a teenager, now I'm lucky if I listen to music for 10 minutes a
year. I suppose it's like not wanting to take your work home at
the end of the day. After 10 hours working on string arrangements
or listening intently to a vocal performance while producing, the
only thing I want to hear at the end of the day is silence. As I
said, people always want to put you into a box with a label on it,
but really, what I do is so potentially complex and the influences
are so diverse, everyone is going to come up with a different box,
or a similar box that probably has little basis in actual reality.
HMR: I feel you really have your own musical
identity. This album is totally different than somebody like Rhapsody.
It's in the structure of the music that this comes out. Listening
to the album, you really notice the emotion throughout. You also
have really created music that is almost like a production. Very
rich and dimensional. Talk a bit about the songwriting on this new
album. It's kind of the same as your previous release 'Flying beyond
the 9' yet different at the same time.
Byrd: Ahh you have
ears! Yes and yes. As I was saying, "production" values
are the unifying factor, but not actually the construction or choices
made in the songs. The songs on 'flying' were all very different
from one another but there certainly is a perspective on that album.
And again, the songs on 'Anthem' are all very different from one
another and it has it's own perspective across the board which is
decidedly different than 'flying beyond the 9'. I'm very happy that
this is noticed here because it's entirely accurate and fulfills
what to me, should be accomplished when I write and produce an album.
I think that 'Anthem' is tinged with a darkness and passion in places
which 'flying beyond the 9' was very different in. It's much more
direct than 'flying' in terms of it's subject matter being far less
metaphorical and distant and 'Anthem' deals with easily identifiable
current themes. From a performance perspective, I think it's "looser".
Not in a literal way, but in terms of it's approach being less self-conscious
and more willing to not only take chances, but in the actual feelings
I had while performing. There were times on this album that I actually
had tears in my eyes while playing and it doesn't get any deeper
than this for me.
HMR: That's really cool. As I said before,
the emotion really comes across well. What are your favorite tracks
on this album and why??
Byrd: It's tough
to pick one favorite but for me "The Price of War" is
probably it. I don't think that as a composition, it can even be
categorized. I mean what is it? It's certainly nothing resembling
"rock and roll" is it. It seems to just be such a dynamic
and "unregulated" bit of personal expression that I find
it compelling. I also like the fact that it puts forward a story
that is not my own, but someone else's. I'm more interested in a
story as seen through someone else's eyes than one seen through
my own eyes because I'm not a mystery to myself. I really found
myself having a vision through someone else's eyes when I wrote
it and it was a vision that seemed overwhelming to me. I mean really,
how many of us can comprehend the idea of wielding that kind of
military power and responsibility over life and death in such a
My other favorite is "Only Love". When venturing into
the darkness and passion of this album, I came to a point where
I needed to find a philosophical "end" for lack of a better
term. In other words, how does this story end if it does? We don't
know what the end is do we. We're told that this "war on terrorism"
will forever be in our lives. What then is the only conclusion one
person can come to which doesn't lead to total hopelessness? "Only
Love" was what came to me. Politics change, events change,
leaders change, even nations change. Only love offered any certain
hope when I thought about it all. None of us can "save the
world", it's going where it's going and there's no individual
control over this. But "love" can save us individually
from hopelessness and in looking at human "solutions"
to what ails us, I found nothing to be optimistic about in terms
of human history and the future. God that sounds "preachy"
when I say it here but I do believe it's true anyway. I was so happy
to be able to end the album by emerging from darkness with this
HMR: Talk a bit about your influences. To
me some are obvious, but it's always interesting to hear them from
Byrd: Oh man, everyone
who I thought and still think- was good! Hendrix, Frank Marino and
Mahogany Rush, Deep Purple/Ritchie Blackmore, Queen, Styx, Pink
Floyd, U.F.O., Scorpians/Uli Roth, Al DiMeola, even Elton John and
other artists who're not considered hard rock or metal. I studied
blues guitarists, fusion guitarists, rock guitarists, classical
guitarists, Violinists, Pianists, but more importantly, I liked
great songs with big productions. I remember the first time I heard
"funeral for a friend" by Elton John. This song probably
had as profound an influence on my musical vision as anything I've
heard. There were others as well; Phil Spector, particularly "river
deep and mountain high", and other Motown from the mid 1960's.
I've always been drawn to the "grandiose" musically. When
I was 2 years old I would literally go crazy and run through the
house jumping over the furniture when my parents would play the
1812 overture and I would beg them to play it again and again. To
me "power" in music doesn't reside in playing a guitar
with a lot of distortion and bashing cymbals but in the dynamics.
I've listened to a lot of classical music over the years to try
to understand how to voice and compose music that is "larger
HMR: Talk a bit about the band. How did it
all come together?
Byrd: I met Brian
in a Guitar Center. He knew a friend of mine and he came up to me
and introduced himself. We talked about our music and I asked him
if he had a tape and he gave one to me. After that I invited him
over and we hung out, listened to each other's music and talked.
He was the right guy at the right time and he said he wanted to
work for me on my albums. I met Michael Flatters through a vocalist
named Steve Benito who recommended him to me. I called him on the
phone and he knew who I was and we played each other some recent
tapes we had. I needed a vocalist and he was perfect.
HMR: Some may be unaware of your days with
Fifth Angel. Explain this time era a little.
Byrd: Well, that
was a band I decided to assemble in 1982 while living in L.A. .
I had heard the singer and the drummer in a cover band here in Seattle
before I left and I was disillusioned by the scene in L.A. which
seemed very contrived and "show-business" oriented as
opposed to music oriented- to me. So I came back to Seattle and
got a hold of them and put forward a plan that was loosely based
on the success of Queensryche; Write, rehearse, record an album
quality four song demo and shop it to labels. Now this might not
sound very revolutionary, but before they seemingly came out of
nowhere in Seattle, my own perspective was no different than most
22 year old "wanna be rockstars"; I thought you played
bars/clubs and hoped to be "discovered". In "he real
world"of trying to pay rent, one only has a certain amount
of time an energy to direct at success in something else like music-,
so what dawned on me then, was that there was a smarter way to be
"discovered" than burning yourself out playing other people's
music in bars, and Queensryche had shown it to me. So I told these
guys that I intended to pursue a recording contract through writing,
rehearsing, and then recording and it was just sort of pursued by
me with a certainty that compelled the people around me come along.
Apart from a very nasty series of events based on personal greed
which destroyed the original line-up after we achieved the goal,
as a "business plan", it's now the accepted and usual
way that artists and bands arrive at the ability to release albums
which reflect their own musical directions as opposed to what labels
foist on musicians.
HMR: What kind of touring can we expect for 'Anthem'?
Byrd: I don't have
any tour plans in the near future. While there is definitely a market
for what I'm doing, it's a very globally spread-out market. The
internet has finally made it possible to reach fans globally and
generate enough sales without going bankrupt to sustain the production
of music. The only way to tour these days without going bankrupt,
is to take the "loan" from the label to do it in the hope
that you're the next Britney Spears and can pay it back in sales.
That's not me is it. I'm also not even contractually tied to a label
under a "recording contract". This is quite intentional
due to recent changes in intellectual property laws that were put
into effect by lobbyists from the major labels. If one writes anything
while under a "recording contract" now, the label owns
it "forever". In other words, copyright no longer reverts
back to the author after 28 years. There is absolutely no way I
will sacrifice my "children" my songs- on the alter of
this kind of corporate oppression. I license one album at a time
to retain control over my publishing and rights and also creative
freedom and have done so since 1997. Once you accept the "loan"
under a recording contract, you're not on your own path, but the
path of those who control everything. A shorter answer is that it's
just not 1985 any more in any aspect of the industry.
HMR: Lion Music is handling this release as they did with 'Flying
beyond the 9'. How widespread will distribution be and where can
fans expect to get the release?
Byrd: I think they
did an outstanding job with my last album. It was the first real
promotion and meaningful visibility I've had since my Fifth Angel
days and it's begun to reverse what I believe to be a lot of damage
done to my sales by Shrapnel Records. I have only a three page agreement
with Lion Music and an understanding that is very mutual. So both
the label and I have the same goal and only mutually satisfying
performances on both of our parts set the continuance of our relationship
between albums. To me, this is how it ought to be. A contract is
not only worthless in the absence of good faith, but detrimental,
and with good faith, things go very well indeed. They've been great
to me and in return, I have busted my butt to make the best albums
humanly possible with no effort spared. So based on the way things
went with the last album, I can only assume that 'Anthem' will hopefully
see similar treatment by the label and that's been very good as
far as I'm concerned.
HMR: On a finishing note do you have any parting
thoughts for your fans?
Byrd: To all those
who enjoyed 'flying beyond the 9', I hope that I'll meet your expectations
with 'Anthem' and thank you to those of you who've given me your
very loyal support over the years. I can't really do this without
HMR: Thanks once again James. We'll have to do it again sometime!
Byrd: Thank you Dave, it's been my pleasure.