Connecting from the Netherlands through Skype proved to be quite a challenge for Collin Leijenaar and Matt Coe, but muster through they did through a nice chat about Affector , the music school he runs for a living and his views on the current, exciting state of progressive rock/ metal for 2012.
The days of artists renting rehearsal space to refine material for studio records appears to be a long lost art. Especially if you are working for a living full time as a musician as Affector drummer Collin Leijenaar currently does, and has been, for the past 14 years. Spawned out of a series of demos he heard from guitarist Daniel Fries while on tour with the Neal Morse band in 2005, Affector developed their first album through a six year back and forth series of home studio recording sessions, between four musicians living in New Jersey, California, Germany, and the Netherlands.
The debut album “Harmagedon” contains that rare balance between technical progressive metal prowess and a melodic underpinning necessary for more than the schooled musician sect to appreciate. Ted Leonard’s comforting vocals and the exemplary bass play from Mike Lepond complete the main unit - and there are a series of guest keyboard spots that raise the stakes for those into virtuosity.
Your interest in drums started at 3 years of age, but due to a friend wrecking a set of drums a year later you stepped away from playing until age 12. Tell us about the initial impetus to become a drummer, and who in your early years shaped your approach and philosophy when it comes to percussion?
“Good question, and you have read into the material, very good! As you said, there was a big hiatus in me playing the drums. When I was in school in the Dutch system, everyone starts with a wooden flute called a recorder. I really didn’t like that, we didn’t have any money to buy a drum kit, so when that little thing was broken that was the last thing I had until I was 12. I was intrigued by music, as a child it didn’t matter what instrument as long as it was related to music. I wanted to be a guitarist, so I went for guitar lessons with a parent of a friend of mine - that didn’t really work out because I didn’t feel at home on that. At a young age I had a love for keyboard sounds - that’s where the progressive, symphonic side of me came out. I did some lessons there - then I went to church as a child and there was a guy who played the drums at church every time on Sunday. After the church service it got more interesting for me as a child because all the grown-ups would leave the church and then the kids could go on stage to play the instruments. I sat behind the drums, and played. Phil Collins and Jeff Porcaro from Toto were my early influences, Phil from the solo material - I got a live album “Serious Hits… Live” and I would play that album daily when I was 12 or 13. I sat behind the drums and would play that album all the way through when I got home from school. Before I did anything else-that was my ritual.”
How did the idea of Affector start and develop? Is it easy to bounce ideas off musicians who are scattered across the world with Ted and Michael living in America, Daniel Fries from Germany and you located in the Netherlands?
“It started in 2005 when I was on tour with Neal Morse, playing with him. After a show Daniel Fries came up to me and he gave me a CD with music he wrote and asked me if I was interested in listening to it. So I did and I was intrigued by what I heard, it was really amazing music and great guitar playing, great songwriting as well. So we kept in contact for a few years, thinking maybe we should do something together. So we started writing songs together, Daniel and I, just for the sake of documenting our ideas - not really making a record. Who knows what would happen from there. During that time in those early writing sessions when the music developed more, we knew it was too good to put away. So we played around the idea of how we could make this music the way we would like, and without thinking it would be a band we asked some guys to play on the album. Daniel was friends with Mike Lepond and Ted Leonard through the internet as a fan of their music. He asked them if they would be interested in playing on our album, our own thing and they both said yes. Soon when we started to record the songs we knew we wanted to make this a band effort - and Ted and Mike said yes to be in this band, even if everyone is recording through the internet. That’s in a nutshell how things went, it took us through a six year period.”
Were you familiar with Mike and Ted’s work between Symphony X, Enchant and Thought Chamber?
“Yes, I own a lot of Symphony X, Enchant and Thought Chamber albums. I met Mike and Ted being on tour with Neal and being on other band touring. It was Daniel who suggested both of them at first, so we hoped they would do this work with us and they did.”
Your debut album “Harmagedon” has fluidity to it that many dexterous-minded progressive metal acts can’t achieve. Describe the challenges of writing and playing intricate music but placing ideas in a form for more than the average musician to enjoy?
“First, thank you for the compliment. The biggest challenge for us was that we were all not together in one room. Everybody was recording their parts in their own studio, or wherever they have a studio. Everybody was doing things by themselves, really listening to the material to see what they could add. It wasn’t like most bands that are booking a studio for weeks or months, however much the budget will allow. So I hear that fluidity you talk about, we really had to look for that as something that’s not natural because you aren’t jamming together but more responsive to the material. That’s why this album took a few years before it was finished. We sent the tracks back and forth - it started with Daniel and me recording our parts, Daniel wrote the basic parts with guide vocals, guitars and I would do arranging with that. When we got close to the final version of a song, with drums and guitars, it would get sent to Ted and Mike to do their thing. When you are paying for a studio, time is money- so sometimes you have to take the second or third take and that’s it. In this way we could go really deep, I took weeks writing the drum parts, and then altered some parts to what Mike did when we got his bass lines back. There was a lot of opportunity to go deep in finalizing the songs.”
Were there any particular sections of the recording or songwriting aspect that presented a challenge to you as a drummer?
“One part in "Harmagedon" there’s this crazy riff going on - I didn’t want to play the obvious route where I play a normal rhythm with a groove so I incorporated the guitar thing that was there. It’s impossible for me to sing that… where it is. It’s 4 minutes into the song, so I wrote a part that was very hard to record correctly. I knew how I wanted it to sound but I couldn’t perform it, so I stopped to think about it for four days. Now I can because I recorded the part - 4:32 seconds in, that was a big challenge for me."
Are you the type of player who has to map out everything in your mind before you record - or are there times where you are more spontaneous and free form/jam-like?
"I am both - what I do is I start with playing whatever I feel and let me be influenced by the other musicians together. After that I fine tune it, look it over and see if there’s anything cool I can do because I don’t want to always go for the obvious thing.”
How was it decided which keyboardists would play on the album? Did you already know which songs they would handle ahead of time?
“When we were talking about how to fill in keyboards for the album I immediately thought of Alex Argento. Since I got to know his music through his solo album "EGO" (it was one of the top albums for me that year) I really hoped that I could work with him one day. So we asked him to be the main keyboard player for this album, and luckily he said yes to it. But we also wanted to add some other keyboard players for some solos, and we started emailing with Derek Sherinian. He played all keys on the song “Falling Away & The Rise Of The Beast”. In 2009 I was on tour with the Neal Morse Band, and we opened a few shows for Dream Theater. Backstage I was talking to Jordan Rudess about Affector and asked him if he would like to do a guest performance on our album. The title track "Harmagedon" and "The Rapture" had this feel to it that we thought would really fit with Jordan’s playing. And luckily he said yes as well. And of course I wanted Neal Morse to play on our album as well, and he played all keys on "Cry Song" and two solos on "Falling Away & Rise Of The Beast".”
You’ve been self-employed in the music business for 14 years. Discuss the trials and tribulations you’ve had to go through as this industry continually shifts with the changing technological landscape?
“14 years, there were a lot of challenges of course. Holding on has to do with passion. I’m living the dream, it’s not always a dream job. It has been at times real rough, no money, living on very little. I think the first seven years I was really struggling because I was trying to be a musician that can live off music that meant something to me. That was just not for that time. I was always hoping that people would pick up the music of the bands I was playing in. I had to persevere to go through and continue the dream. I own now a music school, I was teaching drums - six years ago my wife and I thought about building a music school for people who want to play. We started with 30 students and six years later we have 400 students, 16 teachers that are working at my music school. I believe firmly that somebody with a talent should try to reproduce that talent in others. I really love helping other musicians develop and reaching their goals and their dreams. If you have a dream, follow it no matter what the cost. You will feel like you tried it, I’m a living example who is trying to live his dream. 400 students come almost every week to get trained, I’m in Affector and releasing an album - I am so thankful for what has happened in these 14 years. We have people from age 5 to age 70 - for some people it’s just a hobby, they want a lesson once a week to have an hour a week that’s fine. There are many students who also want to make music their job, and yes we try to get them as educated as possible.”
What are some albums/artists that you think people would be surprised you are into?
“My musical taste is very wide. I listen to pop, rock, prog, metal, jazz, fusion, soul, funk, r&b, blues, classical etc. For me it is much more important that the music has been made with soul and emotion instead of belonging to a certain genre. I need to feel the emotion of the composer or performer. To name a few things I'm listening to lately: I love the new album of jazz artist Esperanza Spalding (Radio Music Society) or the fusion/jam group The Aristocrats with Guthrie Govan. Also the new album from Maria Mena (Viktoria) is an awesome album. But what might surprise a lot of people is that I am also into a few dub step artists like Skrillex and Nero.”
How do you feel about the progressive rock and metal movement in 2012? Are these exciting times for musicians, fans, and labels alike? Do you believe this is a style that has multiple generation appeal and the time investment is what keeps the music enduring?
“I think these are exciting times, as I see that a lot of people are getting back into 'real' music. I see a shift happening in what kind of music people listen to, and 'musician's-music' is back on track again. More and more people leave the computer-generated, overproduced, heartless music behind and are getting into music that has been made with heart and soul. You see that in the huge popularity of singer/songwriters, but also in music that gets a progressive touch to it. More and more mainstream artists are releasing music with a progressive touch to it. But you also see that in a younger audience at (prog or jazz) concerts where normally you would have a mainly 35+ male audience.
This is something you see happening all the time in art history. There are always counter-movements following a certain movement, most of the time being the opposite of what was before. So I think we now see a wave of getting back to pure, real music where you can explore all the possibilities of what music can do or can grow into. I'm excited!!”
What are some hobbies and interests that you have when you need to re-charge your batteries from music?
“Two days ago I just finished a work week of 35 days straight with no day off (laughs). So sometimes I need to get more time off, it’s hard and that’s the curse of being self-employed. I love watching movies and television series - I’m into science fiction, thrillers, action movies. I’m a big music fan as well, I love music. What I like to do with my wife is travelling and holidays now and then. So that’s what I do to charge up the batteries.”
What does the plan look like for Affector over the next 12-18 months? Have you already begun work on the second album?
“Yes, we are shooting ideas back and forth. So indeed we are looking at the next album already. We are also trying to get a tour together, we are waiting to see if we have an audience. We are really looking forward to touring if we can.”
Composed by Matt Coe