Not just in time for Christmas, the new album is Epic. Marketing failures and success. Compilations and complications. Robert Plant’s voice may not be able to hit the high notes, but JC’s hand still can! Shredding. Beautiful Sounds. Oceans Below. Why not Compartments? Reaching that base of constituents.
Roger CortonWhen you emailed me before this chat, you told me the subject was ‘Epic Fail’. When I hear that I think about some girl in a bikini falling off a diving board. Epic Fail! A guy tries to do some fancy moves on the half pipe and gets smacked in the balls. America’s Funniest Home Videos! On steroids.
JCHThat is, if steroids kicked you in the balls.
RCExactly. So… aside from the obvious pun, what’s the point in using that reference to announce Epic, the new record?
So… this is my shot at reaching out again to that wider ‘prog’ community with an album that is wall to wall ‘epic’. Everywhere you drop the needle? POW! Epic. WHAM! Epic. BOING! Epic.
JCHAs we discussed in The Plan, I had planned to get a new record out early next year. But from a marketing standpoint
RCAnd we know you’re all about that marketing.
JCHOh yeah. I could sell ice cubes to Eskimos. That is, if Eskimos lived in Bermuda. Anyhoo, I shoulda gotten this thing done in time for Christmas sales this year.
RCAnd you want fans to know this, exactly, why?
JCHWell, because it matters for a cottage industry such as JCHMusic. And it’s just a fact that if I get a record out by November 1, I’ll move about twice as many units as if I release in February.
RCWhich has been your pattern.
JCHYep. So I’m rushing now to get ‘er done as soon as possible in the vain hope I can actually get CDs to people in time for last minute Christmas pressies. I keep thinking some last minute aid will appear from the sky. You know, Santas Little Helpers.
RCIsn’t that another euphemism for your dick?
JCHNo man, that’s Thor’s Mighty Hammer, motherfucker. But I love it! Yeah, that guy. Those elves.
JCHThose fucking elves. You can’t trust ’em as far as you can throw ’em. But the question I keep coming back to is… do I release as soon as ready or… wait a whole year for the opportunity to make more sales as they would do for a Hollywood Movie?
RCLike releasing Halloween Part 17 on October 1st. So what’s the answer?
JCH(laughs) I need the money now.
RCWell then, that settles that. So let’s move on to the marketing pitch. Why should people buy Epic?
JCHWell, I went back and forth when I did Nice Cuts. There are fans who like songs and then there are fans who want ‘the epics’. Nice Cuts was my attempt to give people a sampler of ‘songs’. Because, as you recall, we had a vote and the fans voted and what they voted for were ‘songs’.
But there is the core minority who want ‘epics’. And ya know? That core persists. The overall buying audience has shrunk a bit, but the core remains.
RCRight. We’ve talked about how the audience is ‘distilling’ down to ‘the base’.
RCYou sound like a political party.
JCHIt is kinda like that. So now my ‘constituents’, the ‘epic’ crowd, are a much larger percentage of the overall ‘base’. And the base wants the longer pieces. La Voila!
RCSo what can we expect on Epic?
JCHThere are two noticeable types of improvements: structure and finish. Some pieces, such as Beautiful Sounds, are noticeably longer. The more I played it the more I realized that it was out of balance and that the structure needed to be changed. So it’s now over four minutes longer than version 1.0.
RCAnd finish means better mixes?
JCHYes. All the pieces hopefully benefit from fifteen years of practice at the art of mixing. You could call it ‘polish’, but it’s more than that. Some of the pieces, such as Oceans Below, may sound very different from the original in the sense of Michelangelo’s frescoes after they were cleaned a few decades ago.
RCYou mean in the sense that they looked so different that some people preferred the ‘original’ uncleaned version?
JCHRight. They were used to it. The dark and fuzzy appearance felt more ‘authentic’ to people. The new vivid colors felt alien.
RCEven though the ‘new’ version was what Michelangelo intended.
JCHPrecisely. On Oceans Below I was able to get a lot closer to my original intention.
JCHBecause I cheated.
RCCheated, you say?
JCHCheated. Took shortcuts. Left various small items ragged that I thought would go unnoticed.
JCHIn the hope they would just blend into the sonic roar! Frankly, I was just getting started and didn’t always know what I was doing. And also frankly, that’s how a lot of old ‘prog’ felt to me; like there were all these little hidden sloppy things slapped layer upon layer to create the ‘hugeness’. Mea Culpa! Today I would simply omit many of these background items. You mute them and instantly it’s like putting cleaning fluid on a fresco to remove the sludge.
RCBut some need to be replayed, right? That must be tough matching takes from so long ago.
JCHWell, it depends on how much reverb is swooooooooshing over everything.
RCYa can’t have progressive rock without caverns of reverb.
JCHIt’s true. You can cover up a LOT of filth with enough echo, Echo, ECHO. And I did! But all kidding aside it wasn’t that tough. I use the same guitars I’ve had forever and I’ve played all these pieces enough that they are still familiar. But of course, there’s the Robert Plant snark I periodically get from fans.
RCCan he still hit the high notes?
JCHExactamundo. The guy sings like a baritone now but still insists he can scream ‘you shook me all night long.’
RCEven though no one’s actually heard him do it in twenty five years.
JCHBut in my case it’s the guitar playing. And it is true that the playing on my earlier albums had more ‘shred’. But that has never been because I lost my high notes.
RCEven after the dreaded hand surgeries of 2008 and 2009?
JCHYes. It took eighteen months, but if speed is what makes a guitar player ‘worthy’ I actually play better now than before. For guitar players out there, I had to learn to sweep pick, which took some doing, but once I had that down I was actually more efficient than before.
RCNo need to be snippy.
JCHDo I sound snippy? Sorry. Seriously. I’m just telling fans that, really truly, cross my heart, no fingers crossed behind my back, my playing is about as good as it ever was. The one thing that is affected is my stamina. The one thing that did not recover was my ability to do those marathon solo concerts. As I’ve reported many times, if I shred too much, my hand simply seizes up. So now I play less guitar during shows, but it’s actually at a higher level. Weird trade-off, huh?
RCIndeed. But as usual we’re getting off course. Bring it back to Epic.
JCHFor some reason, as I got into this so-called career, I moved away from the guitar and more towards the piano and drums. And I know that bugs older fans who want to hear more picking.
RCNot to keep going further off on tangents…
JCHI’m rubbing off on you!
RCDon’t scare me. In any case, why do you think that happened? I mean, moving away from guitar. If it wasn’t the hand problems, what was it?
JCHAs much as I hate to admit it, it hasn’t been for any great artistic vision so much as that I started actually, get this, PRACTICING, keyboard and drums oncen I got a studio big enough to accommodate all that stuff. The biggest change in my musicianship over the past fifteen years is not that I lost my ability to play guitar. Rather, I’ve gained a whole other repertoire because I can now actually play all these wonderful pieces for piano, organ and percussion I never could before. And that affected how I wrote. Everything got more ‘symphonic’, I guess you’d call it, as I started playing more sophisticated pieces.
RCI think that shows. To my unlearned ears, your pieces have gotten more ‘involved’ with each record. Less solos, sure, but more ‘sections’. Like you say, more ‘structure’. Looking at the pieces on Epic, do you see a progression (no pun intended)?
JCHWell, I think you’re right. With each album, I relied less on ‘solos’ to fill out longer pieces. And I think that, overall, the pieces move towards being more ‘developmental’, meaning that by the time you get to The Solid State Siren, pretty much every bar is based on something else that happened before. You can hear the relationships; the structure. It’s not just bits stuck together. There was actually a plan. As I’ve ranted before, it became important to me make pieces that were organized like the concert pieces I admire so much.
RCThere’s that Beethoven thing again. But I get you. So, wrap it up. Give me your “Why buy Epic?” elevator pitch.
JCHYou get not one, not two, not three, not even four, but five, Five, FIVE Epics in one easy to use box! Your friends won’t be able to figure out how you crammed so much damned progressive rock onto one CD! And… if you act now, you’ll receive an EXTRA SURPRISE TRACK!
RCThat’s the last track? I won’t even try to pronounce it.
RCTwo questions: a) What’s Irish for ‘smart ass’? and b) So what’s the surprise.
JCHa) Smart ass works and b) You’ll have to get the album to find out. But I’ll say this: it’s a step back. It’s a new piece that will remind fans of older material, as in pre-hand injury. Hint, hint.
RCIf that means what I think it means? Very cool.
JCHI think it means what you think I think it means. Anything else for today?
RCYeah, two things. First, why nothing from Compartments? So many people feel like Open Your Eyes is your finest hour.
JCHActually, that’s part of the reason Open Your Eyes isn’t on this album. I hate to sound like whatever this will sound like but, I don’t think I could do much to improve on it. For whatever reason, that’s the one piece I’ve done that turned out pretty much how I wanted it to. I don’t think we’ve changed more than two notes on that thing after all these years. I could certainly improve the mix a little, but there is only room for so many tracks on an album and I decided that the pieces that had changed; that needed improvement deserved to be here; not a piece that was already ‘there’.
RCMakes sense. Makes sense. Although I’m not sure it’s the best marketing strategy. But that actually brings me to the last item for today. All this talk about Epic seems like it’s geared towards existing fans. Anything we can talk about in terms of people new to JCHMusic?
JCHThere is a large group of progressive rock fans who are used to hearing long form pieces. What I’ve heard in the past were ‘drop the needle’ complaints from various ‘prog’ reviewers.
RCDrop the needle?
JCHYeah. As you know, the ‘epic’ on my albums would typically be the last track. So a reviewer puts on the CD, hits ‘play’ and if you listen to track one on any of my albums?
RCNo epic. Cool. But certainly not the ‘classic’ definition of progressive rock.
JCHPrecisely. Guys would ‘drop the needle’ at several random points, hear songs about love, politics, whatever and think “Where’s the astral beef?”
RCI take your point. We’d all like to think that reviewers will listen to the entire album and get the entire experience, but I know that I ‘drop the needle’ too. I listen for a few minutes and if it isn’t what I expect? I assume the entire record is like that and I’m onto the next thing. That doesn’t work with your albums. Every track is quite different.
JCHSo… this is my shot at reaching out again to that wider ‘prog’ community with an album that is wall to wall ‘epic’. Everywhere you drop the needle? POW! Epic. WHAM! Epic. BOING! Epic. (laughs).
RCWell despite all your previous ‘woe is me’ talk, that actually sounds like a pretty good idea. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of marketing plan you put in place to reach out to the new people and… I say, I say… broaden that base.
JCHYou do a pretty mean Foghorn Leghorn, Rog. As soon I actually have that plan? You’ll be the first to know. Now back to the dungeon I goooooooooooooo…
RCOh goodie. Sounds like even more cavernous reverb is in the cards. Pile it on with a spatula, dude!
JCHYou’re not helping.