British prog rock trio Kepler Ten have released their debut album ‘Delta-V’ to great critical praise. I had a chat with drummer Steve Hales about the album and how the band will be pulling a double shift when they open for themselves…
Hi Steve. Kepler Ten’s debut album ‘Delta-V’ has just been released. Not only must you be buzzing that it’s out there, but bowled over by the universal praise that it’s garnering?
“Yes, the positive reactions have been overwhelming. As you say, finally getting to release day and seeing it hit the shops was amazing on its own, but then to find out that such a wide range of people are enjoying it, from metal to prog to rock. It’s incredibly satisfying and just a little bit surreal.”
How long have the songs on the album been around?
“Well, we had the luxury of recording them ourselves, so from early writing stages to completed recording probably took around a year. We worked in short spells, with breaks in between, so it’s not a great indicator of actual studio time. It was more a labour of love. Once the record label became involved, we then waited to slide into their release schedule. Some riffs and odd lyrics may be a little older, so I guess some of the songs have been around for a couple of years in total.”
When a “progressive” band goes into the studio to record, is there room for improvisation, or does the intricate nature associated with the genre mean that it has to be mapped out in advance?
“I think it changes from song to song, phrase to phrase. Much of the time, the mapped out sections come from some improvisation in the first place. The drums towards the end of ‘Red Skies Rise’ are a good example of both ‘mapped out’ and ‘improvised’ sections. The SOS morse code rhythm is there for a purpose. It is setting that particular scene, and is a vital part of the story. Then when the rest of the kit comes in, the following section was improvised. That part was all about imagining the story and ‘feeling’ what to play. I know the same goes for James and Richie. Richie wrote a lot of his solos note for note and came into the studio prepared, but there were also times that he just plugged in and went for it. His outro solo in ‘Red Skies…’ was a one take, off-the-cuff moment. “Boom, that’s a keeper!” we said and that was that. Sometimes, it just works that way.”
My favourite Kepler Ten track tends to change on each listen, but at the minute ‘Time And Tide’ is sneaking ahead of ‘Ultraviolet’. I love the hooks on ‘Time And Tide’ and the bombast on ‘Ultraviolet’. Do you have a favourite yet?
“Oh that’s so hard to say. It’s like asking which is your favourite child! I do like the way ‘Swallowtail’ turned out. I was never sure if I had ‘under-written’ the lyrics. I wanted to leave just enough to the imagination, but still convey the whole story. It’s a fine line, but I think the way the music rises and falls works really well, and John Mitchell’s great mix brings it all together. ‘Red Skies Rise’ has to be a band favourite too. It’s unapologetically self-indulgent. Every prog band should have a ‘space epic’, and who knows, one day, we may even return to our poor lost soul up there, colonising the universe single-handed. [Haha]”
The video for ‘Time And Tide’ has passed over 6,000 views on YouTube. That’s a decent amount for a fledgling band!
“Yes! How great is that?! A good friend of ours, Dave Marshall at Semistone Media, filmed and created it for us, so a big thanks to him. The number of views just keeps growing as word spreads. Where prog rock isn’t mainstream, it can be really hard to get new music to the ears of those who might enjoy it, and the ‘Time And Tide’ video has certainly helped us to do that.”
One of the most pleasing aspects of ‘Delta-V’, for me, was the fact that even if you weren’t the biggest prog fan, there was plenty to enjoy on the album. Was this deliberate, or just the way it came out?
“I guess it just came about that way… although we do like the idea of sneaky prog. I would describe Kepler Ten as a melodic hard rock band with progressive tendencies. The most important part of that description is ‘rock band’, but if we can sneak into prog and steal a few extra colours to paint with, without too many people noticing, then that’s great! I think ‘Time And Tide’ is quite a straight forward sounding song, but there are subtle time signature changes in there that hopefully work for the song, and not just for themselves.”
You hinted at it with ‘Red Sky Rise’ just now, but the ‘proggier’ bands are often accused of being over-indulgent. So, it’s not just stereotyping?
“Oh for sure. To carry on my terrible painting metaphor, prog gives you an almost unlimited palette to work with. It also sets the artist free, with no rules, no inhibitions. The beauty of that is you could end up with a wide variety of pictures, from a messy handprint that looks like it was done by a 3 year-old, to a Van Gogh masterpiece. Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and some bands inevitably turn out a Jackson Pollock… brilliant to some, but a total mess to others. I love it all, but we try not to let Kepler Ten get too messy.”
The press release for the album states, “For fans of Muse, Rush, and Toto”. That’s quite a trio right there! As far as comparisons go, it’s very accurate, wouldn’t you agree?
“To be mentioned in the same sentence as those guys is very humbling. It’s difficult to categorise your own sound, and it’s only when other people start to describe it that you listen again and think ‘Crikey! I suppose that section could be a bit ‘Musey” That’s the nature of influences, I guess. We are certainly fans of those bands, so it makes sense that some of that would come through. I’m happy with that.”
Any prog-tinged bands that go with a big guitar sound will always draw comparisons with Queensrÿche. Did you manage to catch the recent acoustic solo tour from Geoff Tate where the shows hit the two hours mark?
“No. Unfortunately I didn’t. I think he only did two shows in this country at the end of December. Geoff Tate is total value for money though. What a character. He drinks even more wine than me! Still sounding good from what I’ve seen on YouTube. Old Queensrÿche is where his magic really happened though, in my opinion. ‘Operation: Mindcrime’ is still one of my all-time favourite albums.”
You won’t get any arguments here! Kepler Ten are signed to White Star Records, set up by John Mitchell and Chris Hillman. Working closely with two such highly-regarded figures in the industry must be an incredible experience?
“Absolutely. Many labels will sign you up and ignore you. Your CD becomes a number in their release machine, and that’s that. These guys couldn’t be more different. I can’t add much more to what everyone already knows about John. He possesses mystical powers, and he channeled them into our final mix. Watching him work was a fantastic experience. You can be half-way through a complex suggestion for something in the mix, and before you finish the sentence, he has already made the change and is smiling at you over his shoulder, ‘What like this?’ [Haha]. Brilliant! He made our recordings come of age. What Chris doesn’t know about the music industry isn’t worth knowing. He involves us, and pulls everything together, treating us all like one big family. I’ve learned so much from him already. It feels like we are part of Team White Star, and I am proud to be signed to their label.”
Kepler Ten came about after the three of you teamed up on a Rush tribute act, ‘R2- A tribute to Rush’, and you are playing a gig in Southampton where you are opening for yourselves! A hard shift that night?!
“It sure is, but it’s great fun. We’ll be playing for around 2 hrs 40 mins in total, but the opportunity to support ourselves is too hard to pass up. All of our attention and energy has obviously been on Kepler Ten for some time now, but while people still want to see R2, even travelling long distances to do so, we will play it for them. It also enables us to have the stage to ourselves for the entire night. We did wonder how the idea would be received, but we tried it once before, and it was a great success. I know there is a stigma attached to tribute acts, but when we do the R2 show it’s a room filled with Rush fans, singing their lungs out. It’s as enjoyable for us as it is the audience. All of this in addition to the very first play through of the whole of ‘Delta V’. It’s gonna be a sweaty one!”
What era Rush do you cover? Do you have a preference between pre-‘Permanent Waves’, or post?
“There’s something from every era in there, although a lot of the set picks itself. Once all the big songs are in there, it’s already hard enough to keep the set to under two hours, and that’s before adding a few older and a few newer songs into the mix. As for preference, I’m all about ‘Hemispheres’, ‘Permanent Waves’, and ‘Moving Pictures’. The other guys are more into ’80s Rush. James is a big ‘Grace Under Pressure’ fan, and Richie loves his ‘Signals’.”
My first Rush gig was in 1980, not only was it the Glasgow gig recorded for ‘Exit Stage Left’, but the first time that I ever saw someone in the crowd playing a homemade, cardboard guitar! What is it about Rush that evokes such passion and fanaticism amongst their fans?
“Wow! What a show to be at! I think with Rush it’s just a magical combination. The music and the narratives, the characters in the band, the chemistry on stage, and, of course, the longevity. We have grown up with these guys, and their music has formed the soundtrack to our lives. I can put any Rush album on and tell you exactly where I lived/worked/went to school at that time. These three Canadians are like family members to thousands of people all over the world, many of who don’t even speak English as their first language.”
What are the plans for the future? Any plans to hit the road?
“We are definitely planning to hit the road, and would like to put a tour or two together a little later in the year. In the meantime, we are going to do a few one-off shows to get the juices flowing. The first of these is the double-header you mentioned at the Talking Heads in Southampton, on April 29th. We are also already deep into writing the next album. We don’t want to wait too long before releasing album number two, and we want to be in the position to gig two albums’ worth of songs sooner rather than later. I guess these long Rush sets have left their mark upon us!”
Interview: Dave Stott