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Lords Of Metal - September 2002
By Jack The Jester

Congratulations with the birth of Anthem. Was it tough to produce this one?
Thank you. Yes, It was a very hard album to make for a number of reasons. First, I was recovering from a serious spinal injury I suffered in 2001 and I was unable to walk or play my guitar for almost 10 months. Then I began writing the music for my follow up to ‘flying beyond the 9’ in the summer of 2001. When the attack on September 11th happened, I was in shock like everyone I imagine. When I tried to continue with the album I had begun, I felt nothing for it any more. 9/11 had really changed my perspective. After a couple of months of not feeling connected to the music I’d written and having no more passion for my pre 9/11 album, I gave up on it and started all over again and wrote ‘Anthem’. By the time everything else was recorded on ‘Anthem’, I was just finally able to hold and play my guitar without severe pain. This album pretty much came out of hell like a flower forces it’s way through concrete.

Again you did almost everything by yourself. You’ve written the music, the lyrics and also done the production of the album. Now I know from experience that mixing can be a hell of a job, because it takes hours and hours of listening to different kind of ‘sounds’, reverb, EQ settings so on and so forth that you might loose touch with what you really want. How do you keep on objective mind?
It is a pain in the ass! Mixing is one of those things that if you want to get it right, it can become incredibly tedious. I’ve had to invent little ways around that like taking frequent breaks, and listening to the mixes on different sound systems. I’ve found car stereos to be the “universal test” of mixes just because no matter how expensive they are, they’ve all got similar problems in certain frequencies, and if there’s anything EQ’d wrong, you’ll hear it for sure in a car. Mainly I’ve found that after about 6 to 8 hours, one has to call it a day and come back to the mix. I’ll then mix a reference to listen to in the morning to see if I was close the night before. And no matter how much effort one puts into it, it’s always something that can be second guessed later; “Is that section of the guitar solo loud enough” or “I’d like to hear a tiny bit less of the highest vocal harmony during that one section”. The list of possibilities one can question are nearly endless really. When it’s all said and done, it’s a very carefully calculated leap, and that’s it. You wait for everyone’s opinion. Hopefully none of them can agree on anything negative. I hate mixing, but it has to be done, and nothing short of a best effort has a chance to be something I’ll end up liking down the road later.

There’s lots of dept and dynamics to hear on this album, is this thanks to the hand of James Byrd or the hand of Brian Hutchinson?
Brian is the engineer, and I am the producer. I mixed the album, so I suppose that’s me. His role though is also important because if the sounds are not as clean as possible, mixing with good separation is next to impossible.

Is the sound you now have exactly the sound you wanted, but looking back at the recording process now, are there things you would have done differently?
There are always things one would do differently, especially if they’re as involved and responsible for everything as I am. But I’m pleased with the results on this album, and I was generally pleased with the last one as well. When one spends the amount of time I spend crafting music and mixing it, it becomes impossible to really hear it the way others who’re listeners will hear it. I usually just come to a point by the time I’m finished, of not wanting to hear it again for a good long time because I just know it too well.

Michael Flatters is a very talented singer, who also did the vocals on Flying Beyond The 9. How did you guys got in touch with each other?
I met Michael through another vocalist who recommended him to me as someone I should call about doing my album. He turned out not only to be a fantastic vocalist, but also one of the nicest, most professional people I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. So we’ve ended up being good friends as well as working together.

All music and lyrics are written by you and deal with certain feelings and emotions. How hard is it for Michael to relate to those feelings, and what’s it like when somebody else is singing about your feelings and emotions?
Michael has done a better job of understanding these things than any singer I’ve worked with before. The great thing about Michael, is that he’s insightful, and understands singing almost from a role-playing perspective, in that he embraces the vision, and does everything he can to help bring it to life.

What can you tell us about your way of songwriting? Do you start of with a melody line and the words follow later, or is it the other way around, and do you write music based on lyrics?
I guess it’s very unusual, but for me it’s normal to hear finished music in my mind before I ever begin to pick up an instrument. I hear everything, even production. The really hard part is learning what I hear and recreating what’s in my mind as accurately as possible.

Do the other bandmembers have a say in musical or lyrical matters?
I bring finished music to the table, so the answer is not really, but that’s not to say that there isn’t dialog. Sometimes I will have several versions of a vocal line and Michael and I will try them to see which one fits his voice the best. There are always small changes that happen to accommodate personal styles and techniques, and there is a dialog between us to create the best performance possible.

Could you give us a short description of what each track means to you, musically or lyrically?

Anthem (Dealt By Darkness)
This is a pretty direct statement regarding the attack.

“Omen” is written in a stream of consciousness style, relaying imagery rather than direct statements. I just sort of went on “automatic” when writing the lyrics out, not second guessing any meanings. It’s one of those tracks that different people are probably going to get different things from.

Messages From Home
This was another very direct statement lyrically. It’s a message of support for those who stand in harms way, far from home.

Some Day
This was what I wanted to say to those who’d lost loved ones in the attack.

All I Want
Things take a bit of a turn here. This track could be about many things if one was not told what it was about. But I wrote it about the media, and yes, it’s cynical. Predictably, as post September 11th reporting in the news returned to the usual ratings driven perspective, it all started seeming crass and calculated to me. I just got tired of the constant “alerts” every other day, and all the speculation based on little, as is so often the case when they need to fill space or time with something, anything, and keep ratings up.

Killing Machine
This track is also a twist on a theme. It’s in the middle of an album about war, but it’s not about war. It’s about playing music, and the song is even about itself. The song has a lot of chord changes and an unusual harmonic structure, so when the lyric says “when you want to make the changes”, it’s actually talking about chord changes. The track has two tri-tones in it’s structure, plus it’s poly-modal during the verses. I wanted to create the sound of a machine with the verse figure, constantly descending and cycling over again. You might also notice that when the lead guitar comes in behind the vocal on the last choruses, I referenced “somewhere over the rainbow” briefly behind the vocal.

Thank You
I wrote this for my girl friend who took care of me when I was hurt.

The Price Of War
I think this is my favourite track on the album. I wrote it in the 3rd person from the perspective of a Sailor stationed in the Persian Gulf on an air craft carrier.

Only Love
I wanted to try to end the album on a positive and hopeful note. The song was inspired by the war in Afghanistan and the hope that some how love would prevail.

The design of the albumcover also shows your trademark, but I noticed that your albums with a guitar on the cover (five of them) all have nine tracks, whereas CD’s with the Atlantic logo on ‘m (three of them) all have 10 tracks. Now I don’t want to make a conspiracy theory out of it, so…is it coincidence or on purpose?
Hmmmm……….just a coincidence.

September 11th 2001 has changed the world forever, but especially in America the events had an enormous impact, more than anything before. What was the effect on James Byrd as a human, a musician and as a songwriter?
It made me really, really angry. For a time it gave me hope, but I honestly have little of that left at this point in terms of how it’s been dealt with, or not dealt with. Whatever effects me profoundly as a human, that ends up becoming imbedded in my music, so we’ll both have to just wait and see how it effects the next album.

Are tracks like ‘The Price Of War’ and ‘Only Love’ direct results of the September 11th events?

You’re a professional musician since 1980, and a lot has changed in the past 22 years. From a commercial perspective the times are better, but from a musician’s point of view maybe a bit thin, for most of the music was designed for chart success. You yourself never quite joined the rat-race for a Number 1 spot in the charts, but the effect of that was that the general public in Europe never have heard from one James Byrd. Do you think of that as like a missed opportunity, or are you quite satisfied with the respect you get from those small number of people who do enjoy your CD’s.
I’m very happy with things. There’s always a price to be paid for winning the so-called rat race, and in the case of music, I think the price is what you do with it. I like what I’m doing and I’m just not the kind of person who responds well to “authority”. I think that had I have been a huge commercial success in the 80’s, I’d have to deal with people who wanted to push me into directions for their own reasons. That is so antithetical to my nature, I think things have probably turned out the way they’re supposed to for the most part.

Back in 1979 I heard the album ‘Earthquake’ from Uli John Roth and was absolutely blown away by it. Now I can imagine that in those days your guitar playing was compared to his, and that he might have been a kind of inspiration for you. In which way do you think you’ve grown as a guitar player through the years?
Yes, Uli was one of the players who inspired me in my early days. I have so many different influences musically, and I have so many different ways to approach the guitar in terms of how I chose to play, that I think that the way I’ve grown is in an ability to incorporate my guitar playing into the music, as opposed to on top of the music. I stopped caring about “showing off” a long time ago, and for me, there is a feeling of greater freedom as an artist, when my perspective is complete, as opposed to individual and dare we say “insecure”. I’m content with myself as myself, but always striving to improve.

By coincidence you and Yngwie J. Malmsteen are both guitarists, both of you have gone through practically the same experiences, and both of you have kind of the same influences. It’s a pity that he’s much more known here in Europe than you are, so lots of people think Yngwie’s your greatest influence, while it could have been the other way around. Don’t you get sick and tired of hearing that, and don’t you think this misunderstanding should be removed from the planet?
Well, I certainly don’t know if I was an influence on Yngwie. But no, he was also not an influence on me either. Yes, we have remarkably similar backgrounds in terms of our influences. I really do get tired of these comparisons to be honest. Yes, he’s a great player, and also a friend. But some people have very small minds about these things. It is as if they are saying “We can’t have Vivaldi and Mozart without accusing one of them of insincerity for copying the other”. It really is absurd, but what can you do? I only hope that history will be more objective than some critics have because it’s a disservice, to both of us, but especially me.

Usually you choose for a kind of sober and clean guitarsound, and to me the songs sound honest and transparent by doing that. Can we say that this is the typical James Byrd sound?
I’ve tried hard to attain a guitar sound that is natural, and not “dirty” sounding. Yes, I’m very pleased with my sound. It requires more effort and technique to use a cleaner sound, but the results are what count, and I am very happy with this sound.

“Flying Beyond The 9” got a lot of cool reviews from the press, but how’s ‘Anthem’ doing at the moment?
It just came out last month, so I don’t have any sales figures. But it does seem to be doing very well, and the reviews have been mostly very good again.

It’s customary these days to pin-point everything down to a certain style, which is the easiest way to describe a particular album, but if you had to describe your album to someone who doesn’t have a clue who James Byrd is or what he stands for, what would you say?
That’s hard to do. I would say that it’s a mixture of classical influences, 70’s art rock, hard rock, and pop (without seeming “pop”).

Right, ‘Anthem’ is released, so the logical question is: Will this release be backed by a tour, and if so, will you also do Europe (and Holland)?
No, it’s just too expensive unfortunately and I’m not going to go into debt or place myself under the control of someone who’d loan me the money -tour support-. This sort of music does have an audience, but at this point, it’s spread out around the world and the only way at this time for me to effectively reach them without going broke, is through the internet. This is where it’s difficult for someone in my position. If I was a platinum artist in the 1980’s like Yngwie, I could play in Las Vegas and make money doing it. But I’m still too much of a “cult figure” as an artist to sustain a profitable tour overseas.

If you where forced to move to a desert island, and you could only bring album with you, which would that one be, and why.
Can I trade the one album for one guitar please? Or is this Island in hell? But seriously, it’s really hard to imagine choosing what “imposed impoverishment” I could choose to live with there. Maybe Mendelschon’s violin concerto in E min.

Did I forget to ask something which you definitely wanted to talk about?
No, I think we’ve covered it pretty well. Thanks very much for your interest and some insightful questions.

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