- September 2002
Interviewed by Rick
When the conversation turns to guitar heroes
this man's name is rarely mentioned by the casual music listener.
Its a shame because James Byrd is one of the better players to ever
strap on a six string. From his days in Fifth Angel to his current
symphonic output, James Byrd has never lost his edge on the fret
board. I recently had the opportunity to pose these questions to
him which cover everything from his past with Fifth Angel to his
latest release: ANTHEM.
You have a new CD out on Lion Music called
ANTHEM. Is it true that you started this CD once but scrapped the
songs and started over after the events of 9/11?
Byrd: Yes. I always write music that reflects my environment. September
11th changed everyone's environment. I realized that I had to begin
over again when I tried to continue with the album I was working
on. I just felt no connection or further sense of importance in
what I was doing. So after a couple of months of floundering about
trying to move forward with it and feeling as though I was pulling
teeth, I just gave up and started with a fresh slate so to speak.
Can you talk a bit about some the specific songs from ANTHEM and
speak about the lyrics and what they mean to you? Do you have any
Byrd: Each track reflects my thoughts as events unfolded after 9/11.
I can recall that when we recorded the vocal for "Anthem -dealt
by darkness-" Michael and I had just witnessed the destruction
of American Airlines flight 587 over queens New York over our morning
coffee. I just remember the feeling we had that day and I think
the track drips with passion. "Omen" is more a stream
of consciousness type of writing that creates imagery with words.
"Messages from Home" was my message to those who stand
in harms way for us. Without going through every track, "The
Price of War" is probably my favorite track on the album. I
like it because it really tells a story and I wrote it in the 3rd
person. For me this is more interesting because I had to try to
capture a vision someone else would have, and the idea of being
on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf at night just seems almost
alien to me. I think that track really paints a picture and has
Why did you feel that the material you had
written before was no longer of any use?
Byrd: I just didn't identify with the mood of the music. I don't
need to beat the hell out of an idea in hopes of "salvaging"
a song. I don't work that way. Writing music should be completely
effortless, and when it's connected to your feelings, it really
is. I don't actually spend much time with the basic structure of
a song. Whatever it is, it comes to me very quickly and fully formed
and I've learned not to second guess myself. I would rather just
write another song than try to "twist" one that's already
written. I guess I kind of view them as little gifts from some unknown
"beyond", and I feel they're "right" the way
they come to me.
Will we see any of those songs show up in
Byrd: No, I don't think so.
Why did you choose not to advertise the CD
as a collection of songs about the terror attacks. Wouldn't that
have attracted more attention to the album's release?
Byrd: Once enough shock wore off from the attack that I remembered
that I had to deliver an album, just about the first thing that
came to mind was that there would, inevitably, be all kinds of "cashing-in"
on the tragedy. The thought made me a bit sick to be honest, but
it's an extremely unfortunate aspect of the darker side of human
nature that it was entirely predictable. My intuition told me that
this particular event, would probably bring every Tom, Dick and
Harry out of the woodwork, playing on people's sympathies in a ploy
for personal recognition and gain. So the short answer is that it
probably would have "increased sales" but that I did not
want my motives as an artist contaminated that way. Any "tribute"
was going to have to stand on content alone, not "profit"
from something so evil. Now that it has been almost a year since
that horrendous day, have the emotions that you used to create Anthem
changed in anyway? Byrd: I'm just as angry, but I've become very
cynical as to our government's demonstrated refusal to do the obvious.
When to this day, 90 percent of all checked airline baggage is still
un-searched, our borders are still unsecured, and immigration to
this country is at record high levels, something is seriously, terribly
wrong with that picture. It's as if they almost want it to happen
again. It's incredibly disturbing to me.
Can you talk a bit about the recording of
Anthem. Where it was recorded and did you use traditional techniques
or more modern technology such as Pro Tools?
Byrd: Yes, modern technology. The last album is probably the last
album I'll record on tape decks. The quality of recording on hard
disk is much better and the control one has when mixing the tracks
How do you handle the orchestration that is
on Anthem? Who composes the music and is it created at the same
time as the initial song or added afterwards?
Byrd: I write the music and words, and I compose all the orchestrations.
Although I initially begin writing with my guitar, the parts I write
first are for the piano. I just use my guitar to show Brian the
parts. Once the piano is established, everything is built around
that. My guitars are the last thing done. I think that the piano
holds the most concise aspects of the music from a beginning stand
point. It has the polyphony, range, and dynamics, to create the
best outline for further development. I think there's a reason the
piano is associated more than any other instrument with composition,
and this is it.
How did you find Michael James Flatters to
provide vocals for your last couple of CDs?
Byrd: I hooked up with Michael through another vocalist I had contacted
when looking for a vocalist. He couldn't do my album, so he recommended
Michael, who coincidentally turned out to be familiar with my work
in Fifth Angel and actually a big fan of the band. He's been just
an outstanding guy to work with on every level.
Why did you go with the Byrd moniker on your last couple of releases
instead of Atlantis Rising?
Byrd: I wanted to "turn over a new leaf" on a number of
levels. I wanted to pursue music that was much more orchestrated
and symphonic, and I also felt I had a fresh start with a new label
who conveyed to me that they wanted to treat me well in business.
We were also on the brink of the millennium. So for me, it was just
a way to mark what I think will be my new direction for some time
Whatever happened to Freddy Krumins who provided
vocals for Atlantis Rising and would you consider ever working with
him or any of that bands members again?
Byrd: I have lost track of him. I'm very happy with Michael, but
Freddy and I were always on decent terms. I don't even know if he's
still singing to be honest.
were a member of Fifth Angel for the debut CD. Why did you leave
that band and with the recent glut of re-unions would you consider
working again with Fifth Angel?
Byrd: Oye. I get asked this question in nearly every interview.
It's like rehashing a 13 year old divorce, it just gets to be a
drag. So I will give you the briefest possible answer, but short
answers do not really explain what happened because it's complex.
But I was fired from the band without notice, immediately after
signing a new partnership agreement which relinquished certain important
rights I had in the band. It was a stab in the back, it was done
for money and a right to continue using the name without me, and
if one wants all the extended and lurid details of what's really
a "heavy metal soap opera", I'm just not up for it today.
You contributed a solo to the Jason Becker
Tribute "Warmth in the Wilderness". How did you get involved
with the project and why that particular solo?
Byrd: The Becker tribute is how Lion Music and I actually got hooked
up in the first place. Lion heard some of my music on mp3.com and
knew who I was. They emailed me and asked me if I'd play. I said
"sure". I already had flying beyond the 9' in the
can when this happened, and I was looking for a deal. About two
weeks after I accepted the request to play on the Becker tribute,
I emailed them and asked them if they wanted to hear a new album
I needed to find a deal for. They did, and that's how that happened.
I was not really in a position to produce a complete track for the
Becker tribute because I was finishing my album, so Lion asked me
to contribute a solo and sent me the track to play on.
I get the feeling when I am listening to your
music, that you are heavily influenced by music from the 70s. Could
you fill me in on some of your influences and how they find their
way into your music?
Byrd: Yeah, it's nearly all 70's influences. I think it's more a
matter of a general perspective than any particular band. I like
a lot of vocals, I like a certain type of writing that's very "song"
centered, and I like "big" productions with a lot of depth.
I listened to so many different types of music growing up; Hendrix,
Purple, Rainbow, Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush, Al DiMiola,
Uli Roth, Pink Floyd, Elton John, Beatles, Andrew Lloyd Webber,
UFO, Be-bop Delux, Jeff Beck Group, Return to Forever, Journey,
Kansas, Robin Trower, D'Jango Reinhardt, Paco DeLucia, Beethoven,
Vivaldi, Mozart, and I'm sure I've only hit on half of them here.
It's a truly mixed bunch of influences.
Do you listen to any newer bands?
Byrd: Having a girlfriend makes it imperative. I couldn't tell you
who any of them were -I hope she doesn't read this-. I seldom actually
listen to music, but when I do, and it's my choice, it's usually
the local classical station. The last CD I bought was Blackmore's
Night. I played that very, very loud driving to LA with my girlfriend
and I ended up driving about 110 miles an hour for the full length
of the CD. I liked it -if you couldn't guess-. But if you mean "Nu-metal"
like "Korn", forget it. It might as well be rap as far
as my taste goes. I like singers that sing and guitar players that
As do most of our readers!! On FLYING BEYOND
THE 9 you decided to go with only 1 guitar track. Quite a departure
from what most guitar players are doing now. Why did you choose
to go that route and looking back, do you feel that the finished
product came out as you had envisioned it?
Byrd: I wanted the guitar to fit within the compositions, rather
than being the compositions. I also wanted the actual sonic "room"
for the orchestrated parts to reveal their detail. I just tired
of the "wall of guitars" sound of most metal, especially
since "grunge" came into being. I prefer the purity of
using symphonic instruments to carry counter-melodies, and using
the guitar as a fundamental just wipes out the separation and clarity
of everything. Yes, I'm pretty happy with that album, and if you
know me, I'm not always happy, and I'm pretty up-front about anything
I think is less than perfect that I've done.
Did working like that give you an interesting
ideas that you put to use on ANTHEM?
Byrd: I've always been able to hear complex and finished music in
my head, I just didn't have the resources to develop those ideas
as fully as I'm able to now. Recording on hard disk enables me to
select from a huge variety of symphonic sounds and to have enough
tracks to create this music. The last album -flying beyond the 9-
was first recorded on 16 track digital, then the tracks were flown
into PC for the additional orchestrations. It was sort of a bridging
point between recording the old way, and the new. On Anthem',
everything was recorded direct to disk on PC and the sound is markedly
cleaner I think.
Its interesting to note that though you are
from the United States, your last couple of releases have been on
Lion Music which is based in Finland. How did you get in contact
with this label and why not release your music on a North American
Byrd: They were the people who stepped forward and it's been a positive
experience for the first time in this industry for me. If there's
an American independent label who want to distribute my music and
are ethical, I'd love to hear from them. I don't think the music
scene is too healthy here apart from the fact that no matter how
bad it gets, there will always be bands and artists who keep going
anyway. I went through that here with Shrapnel and managed to make
it out the other side, but this is a very rough business. Lion Music
has been a breath of fresh air, and frankly I needed one.
Metal seems to be making a comeback in many
parts of the world yet North America seems to be far behind in picking
up on the growing popularity of metal. What are your feelings, if
any, on the metal scene in North America?
Byrd: I don't trust any of these so called "trends", whether
reported on by someone, or actually polled. I think that the fan
base for great music never went away, only access to them was limited.
People who -for example- liked Journey in the 70's didn't all of
a sudden decide that they had to have the newest hip-hop album.
The industry as known through the major labels decided to ignore
them, period. Why? Because they are one dimensional, have no real
understanding of music as "art", and their values are
devoid of any aspects other than the biggest sales to the easiest
demographic to part with their money. The demographic targeted used
to be between 17 and 35. Now it's between 9 and 12. That says everything
about values in the culture. I don't think record companies have
ever been very smart to be honest. Just consider all the labels
that passed on the Beatles before one guy said "I'll give you
a chance". I think that for them, they just throw shit at a
fan and see what ends up on the wall. If it sticks, they're "geniuses".
Can you speak a bit about your training? Did
you pick up the guitar on your own or did you take lessons?
Byrd: I had a hand-full of lessons from my cousin and a couple of
guitar teachers. My cousin taught me how to tune the guitar and
play a few chords. I've had maybe 7 or 8 lessons in my whole life.
I learned to play by playing along with my records and learning
the guitar parts and solos exactly.
What words of wisdom do you have for young
people just picking up the guitar?
Byrd: Play in tune, please! Learn to be discriminating in your assessment
of guitar playing. If you think someone who's awful is "God
on the guitar", you'll end up being awful. Record yourself
and be critical. Don't practice mistakes. That's about it, but it
takes a lot of self-discipline. I don't think a teacher is the answer
most of the time. If you're really motivated, and have self-discipline,
a world of great players will be your teachers because you'll take
responsibility for reaching your goals yourself and you won't need
someone to smack your knuckles with a ruler.
I notice that in most of your pictures you are holding a Flying
V. Is that your favourite guitar and could you give me a rundown
of what equipment you use to get your sound?
Byrd: It's not a Flying V. It is a Byrd TM Super Avianti ® guitar
that I designed, built, and patented nationally. It's not actually
shaped like a flying V' if you compare them. The guitar has
a unique patented body design called The Balance Compensated Wing
® and a unique patented neck and head stock. The electronics
and scale length are based on the Fender Stratocaster ® , but
improved. I use only my own Byrd guitars these days. I use a Marshall
model 1987 50 watt "plexi" amp, all stock, and an ancient
Marshall speaker cabinet with 8 ten inch speakers in it. I use a
DOD250 over drive pedal, and a Jim Dunlop Cry Baby wah pedal. That's
it. I don't have a rack or any special effects, just the guitar,
and OD box, and the amp.
You have an official website which can be
found at www.jamesbyrd.com Do you think the internet has impacted
the way that music is made available to the masses and has it helped
you in anyway to make your music more accessible?
Byrd: I wouldn't be here without it -pun intended-. Yes, it's made
a huge difference. I am able to reach fans that are widely spread
around the globe. When you're not a platinum artist, you need to
reach as many fans as possible, and the net has made it possible
without going bankrupt trying to do it. Thanks for taking the time
to answer these questions James.
Is there anything else that we haven't covered
and you would like to tell the readers of Metal-Rules.com?
Byrd: Sure, you're very welcome. I always assume people don't know
me, and at least half the time I'm right. So to those who don't
know my music, have a visit to www.jamesbyrd.com where you can find
links to some mp3's and samples, and see if you like it! To those
who've remained faithful fans over many, many years, I'm truly thankful
that I've had your support, so thank you very much.