Mike Lepond: basso continuo

Are bassists the outcasts of metal musicians? The legend says they’re always under-mixed on albums, or consigned to the background on stage, while guitarists get all the credit. But the history of rock, hard rock and heavy metal is crammed with bassists who have established themselves as motors, sometimes even leaders: Steve Harris, Geddy Lee, Geezer Butler, Nikki Sixx, Roger Waters, etc. According to Mike Lepond, Symphony X’s discreet bass player, who released his first solo album Silent Assassins last year, although the bassist is not the first musician to draw attention in a band, it is his or her responsibility to put him- or herself in the spotlight, to distance him- or herself from the guitars and drums, and to bring in that little “extra” element to the music, just like any other musician.

Lepond talks about his brief spell as a solo artist, from the idea to the conception of the record, but also about bass, a supposedly obscure instrument that no rock or metal song could possibly do without. There’s even room for virtuoso performances, as the man has brilliantly proven during his career.

« Hopefully some bass players will hear this and they’ll say to their guitar players: “Hey! What about me?!” [Laughs] »

Radio Metal: How did you get the idea to do a solo album?

Mike Lepond (bass): In my time in Symphony X, I’ve been writing a lot of songs and a lot of the songs that I wrote didn’t really fit Symphony X’s style. But I kept them around and I always thought of doing a solo album when I would have enough songs. So, I’d say around 2010, I finally had enough songs, I started to put them all together and three years later, it’s finally done!

Not too many bass players have gone solo…

[Laughs] I know! It’s strange. But for some reason I always felt comfortable writing songs on the bass and on the guitar. So it wasn’t really hard for me. I’m not really that well known in Symphony X, obviously, so I guess it’s a little harder to get my name out there, but I had no problem with it and hopefully this will inspire more bass players to do the same.

Were you somehow inspired by the fact that bass players like Geddy Lee or Geezer Butler – that are some your main influences – actually did go solo?

Yes. Those guys have really cool solo albums. I guess my main reason for wanting to do a solo album was that I have a love for traditional heavy metal music. I always wanted to do something in that genre. Symphony X is a progressive metal band, so those songs wouldn’t fit with those guys. This is something I always wanted to do and finally, with the help of some good friend and good musicians, I was able to pull it off.

You launched a Kickstarter campaign to finance this album. Can you tell me more about this experience?

I had never heard of Kickstarter until maybe a year ago and I thought it was fascinating because this was a way where you could actually not need a record company. You could go directly to the fans and the fans and the artist could share the making of a record together. I thought that was amazing. So I tried the Kickstarter and I think it worked out really well. It works out for me because I get the help I need to record the album kind of like in advance and it’s great for them because they can see what’s going on with the record from the beginning until the end, and they can preorder the record and get it before anybody else.

And do you think this is something you could use with Symphony X, for example?

You know, I think that Kickstarter, indiegogo and sites like these are the future and I wouldn’t be surprised if sometime in the future Symphony X does do this.

You’re playing, obviously, bass guitar but also the rhythm guitar on the album but you also have “Metal” Mike Chlasciak (Halford) and Michael Romeo (Symphony X) on lead guitars. Why did you choose to get these two guitar players involved?

I wanted to have a classic heavy metal two guitar type of a sound. I had tried some guitar players out and it didn’t really work. And Metal Mike lives here in New Jersey, just like me, and we’ve friend for many years. I actually played on his solo album. So I called him up, I played him the tracks, he liked it a lot and he wanted to be a part of it. Actually, Michael Romeo really liked the album too ; he engineered it, so he was there from day one. It was cool for him because he got to play a different style of metal; I guess he grew up with that style. So it worked out really well and their styles are very different, which was really awesome and I think it really makes the album shine.

Michael Romeo engineered it, like you said, but he was also involved in the drum production…

I could not have done this without Michael Romeo, he helped me so much. He programmed all the drums and, besides playing guitar, he also played the keyboards, and he engineered the whole thing and helped me with the overall production. I guess I went with programming the drums only because it was easier and I figured it’d be faster just to have the drums programmed. And Michael Romeo is a great drum programmer. He’s fooled many drummers into thinking it was a real drummer [laughs]. So that worked out. And it was the first time that I ever tried to be a producer. It’s a really hard job! You have to have a tremendous ear. Luckily I had Michael to help me, because he has a fantastic ear. So, overall it worked out. Will I ever produce for another band? I don’t think so [laughs].

It does sound like a real drummer! I too got fooled and was actually gonna ask you who played the drums… How did he get such result?

I don’t know how he does it, but he can think like a drummer, he can think like a bass player, he just has a gift. There are a few famous drummers out there who listened to the CD and they asked me: “Who did the drums on the record?” And I’m like: “Well, it was a drum machine…” And they’re like: “What?!” [Laughs] So it was funny.

How would you actually describe your musical relationship with Michael Romeo? Do you feel close to him since you felt like involving him even on your solo album?

Yes. Michael Romeo and I are very, very close. We’re great, great friend and we have been from the very beginning, since I joined the band. He’s always been there to help me and the same for him: I help him any way I can. So I came to him with the idea of a solo album and he was only too happy to let me record it in his studio and just help me with whatever I needed. And it was great because I would listen to the songs and I would say… I didn’t really know how to explain what I wanted to hear but I would try to explain it and he would just know instantly what I wanted. He would just press his buttons and it would be there. It was invaluable to me and it made the record, I think, that much better.

« But I always loved the walking bass players of the 1970, where you could hear the bass all through the song. I wanted that type of a feel. You know, the guitar is still there, it’s still cranking loud but I think the bass need to be up there too. »

And how do you two interact in Symphony X, actually?

For the songwriting in Symphony X, he writes, basically, 99% of everything. And then he’ll send me demos of the songs, with his ideas for bass, and I’ll listen to his ideas, I’ll play his ideas and also add my ideas in and we kind of worked together. So, when we record bass for real on the album, I’ll just play my new ideas for him and he’ll say: “Ok, that sounds good” or “Let’s try this” or “This doesn’t work”… We just work together because we have a mutual respect for each other.

How did Alan Tecchio (Hades, ex-Watchtower, ex-Seven Witches) end up being your choice to sing on the album?

I met Alan Tecchio around 2010. We had done some shows with Seven Witches together. I loved his voice because he sang with great melody but he had that rough and gritty style in his voice, it was very metal. So, a few years later, when I finally had all the songs together, I approach him with it, I played him the stuff and he liked a lot. He came in and I think he did an incredible job, and he did it really fast, which was awesome. He did his homework, he learned the songs and he really enjoyed playing on the album. He and I have become really, really good friends in the meantime. He’s phenomenal and I’m very happy that he was able to do it.

Weren’t you tempted to sing by yourself?

Oh, I’m a terrible singer [laughs]. I can’t sing. But… I think, what I wanted to do was to use guys who lived in this general area in New Jersey, USA, and that way I would be able to sit there with them and tell them what I wanted. It worked out much better than just sending the songs to some place in another country and then going back and forth. I think it save a lot of time.

Who actually wrote the lyrics?

I wrote the lyrics, all the music and I also wrote all the vocal melodies. So all Alan had to do was just to sing it back to me with the power. He did it great. He knew exactly what I wanted.

As you mentioned earlier, the album is quite different from what we know from you in Symphony X. It has kind of a true metal vibe, with some more thrashy songs and even some very Motörhead sounding parts. Does this represent your true roots as a music lover and musician?

Yes. What you hear on the record, that is my roots. I always loved classic, pure, traditional heavy metal and I also was really into the thrash bands too. So I had that influence. And then, as we got into the 90s and the 2000s, I really was fascinated by bands that were coming out of Europe, like Blind Guardian and the kind of medieval kind of style they were doing. So that influenced me. And then most recently, I really love listening to Blackmore’s Night and that had an influence on my music too. I just put all that together and this is what came out.

Actually the beginning of “Red Death” and the middle section in “The Quest” have almost a kind of folk and medieval vibe. So are these from the influences you were talking about?

Yes, exactly. When I listen to Blackmore’s Night, I‘m listening to Richie Blackmore and what I do a lot of times is, what he’s doing with the guitar, I’ll try the same kind of thing on the bass, because I love it so much. Exactly, the beginning of “Red Death” really comes from a Blackmore’s Night influence and that middle part in “The Quest”, that almost kind of Celtic dance part, that comes from my Blackmore’s Night influence as well.

It’s funny because most of the people who like Richie Blackmore really like what he did in Rainbow or Deep Purple and kind of discard what he does with Blackmore’s Night…

Yeah, I know. A lot of friends of mine just don’t like it. But I just love it, you know. I love what he’s doing and, again, it had a huge influence on me.

Aren’t you afraid that the Symphony X fans who will check out your album will be disappointed because they won’t hear the neo-classical prog metal they would expect from you?

Yes I am afraid [big laughs]. That of course is a concern for me but I’m just gonna throw it out there and I hope that the Symphony X fans will at least appreciate what I’m trying to do. If they can appreciate the style of music I’m doing, that’s all I can ask for.

The album ends on an epic song called “Oath Of Honor” with an glorious kind of Manowarish vibe. Are you specially attached to the epic side of heavy metal?

Yes. I think that heavy metal and epic stories from mythologies go so well together, it’s perfect. I love grandiose epic metal, triumphing sounding metal, so I always wanted to do a song like that. I was hugely influenced by Manowar and they always had that epic feel. And so many of the European band had this epic metal sound and I just love it. Just from listening to all this stuff, I wanted to try it on my own and that’s what came out. Basically “Oath Of Honor” is about the days of King Arthur and it’s specifically about a story called Sir Gawain And The Green Knight. It was just really fun to do.

« Most people expect bass players to just play exactly what the guitar plays and that’s all. But that’s really not using the bass to its full potential. »

The fast bass part on “The Quest” can remind, for example, the one that we hear at the beginning of the Symphony X song “Domination”. Would you say that this is somehow your trademark bass line style?

Yeah, you know, I guess I kind of have a certain style and a certain way I play riffs. I never thought about that but after you pointed it out, yeah! I think you’re right. They are kind of similar and I do have that kind of a style for a quick little beginning bass line thing. So, yeah, I guess it just continues in that style.

The kind of bass sound that we hear on the album and that actually breaks through the mix remind either Steve Harris or Joey Demaio. How influential have these bass player been in that sound?

I love Joey Demaio, I love Steve Harris. I was hugely influenced by a lot of the stuff that Joey Demaio did with his eight string bass in Manowar. And Steve Harris as well, you know, with the way he would hit the bass, his choice of notes and scales. I wanted on this album the bass to be heard. So many times, on albums and especially on metal albums, you can’t hear the bass. And this is because the guitar is so thick. So, on this album, I wanted the guitar to be a little thinner so the bass could pop out. I had just a punchy bass sound with a little distortion on the high end. I was really happy with the sound. I think the bass is really in your face. I didn’t use an amplifier, I just used a plug-in from an Ampeg which gave me a nice sound and I have a Tech 21 Sansamp, which also gave me a fat sound. So both of them together worked out perfectly.

Actually the fact that we can’t hear the bass in the mix in albums is often a source of frustration for bass players… So has this also been a frustration to you?

Well, you know… Yes, it has. There have been a few Symphony X albums where it’s really hard to hear the bass. And that’s fine, you know… I mean, I’ve no problem with that but if I’m gonna do something on my own, I have to make sure that the bass is way up there loud. Just like when you listen to the album Moving Pictures (note: the 1981 Rush album), you hear the guitar and the bass, both of them are very loud and very clear, and I wanted to almost have a sound like that, where it’s a trio type of sound.

How would you explain that metal music isn’t more often mixed that well, with a more prominent bass?

I guess metal music is about that guitar riff. The guitar riff’s got to be in your face and usually, I guess, people mix the bass just kind of in the back to give it the meat it needs. But I always loved the walking bass players of the 1970, where you could hear the bass all through the song. I wanted that type of a feel. You know, the guitar is still there, it’s still cranking loud but I think the bass need to be up there too. Hopefully some bass players will hear this and they’ll say to their guitar players: “Hey! What about me?!” [Laughs]

Do you think this could change for future Symphony X albums and that it would benefit from your solo experience?

I don’t think the mix in the Symphony X albums will change all that much because we have a really thick guitar sound. The bass is up there. I mean, on our last record, Iconoclast, you could hear the bass pretty good. So I’m happy with that. I’m sure the next album we do will be kind of the same mix. As far as the Symphony X records, I think the bass is mixed fine.

Have the bass parts actually been the starting point of the songs on your solo album?

Let’s see… I think I wrote most of the songs on the guitar actually. Wherever there needed to be a lead bass, I would write it, but mainly it was on the guitar.

The album is called Silent Assassins, could this be a metaphor for bass players, that have a reputation to be discreet but that in fact can be killers, musically?

Yeah, I mean, I hope that if there are any bass players out there who have been a little shy about going out and putting out a solo album, they’ll say: “I’m gonna give it a try and hopefully it will work out.” Go for it! More bass players should be heard in metal.

What’s according to you the greatest misconception about bass players?

I think that, for metal, most people expect bass players to just play exactly what the guitar plays and that’s all. But that’s really not using the bass to its full potential. A bass can really make a song move. It can make a song groove really nicely with a walking bass line. It seems like walking bass is a lost art. It seem like somewhere during the 80s bass players just stopped doing it and they just wanna play exactly what the guitars are doing. So I hope this will change because the bass is a vital part of the band and it needs to be up there.

« I choose bass because when I was thirteen years old my father took me to see Kiss and I saw Gene Simmons up there, he was flying and doing all these crazy things, and I was like: “Wow! That’s exactly what I want to do! » [Laughs] »

What would be the best advice you could give to people that are starting playing bass?

The best advice I could give would be: start off by learning blues. You might not like the blues but that will teach you a lot about walking the bass and moving from chord to chord. Learn your scales. And also, find some bass players that you really like and just try to learn what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. That’s what I did and it worked out great for me, and I think it will work out great for anyone else.

What would you say to someone who’s hesitating between playing bass and playing guitar to make his choice or even to convince him to choose bass guitar?

I think that you just have to listen to music and whatever instrument touches you the most is what you should go for. Some people like that lead guitar that’s right up front and then some people just like to kind of be in the back ground, just hang out and play all these nice little things on the bass. So it should be a personal preference. I choose bass because when I was thirteen years old my father took me to see Kiss and I saw Gene Simmons up there, he was flying and doing all these crazy things, and I was like: “Wow! That’s exactly what I want to do!” [Laughs]

The bass guitar is part of the rhythm section in the band and we usually say that bass and drums really have to be tight together. So what is your relationship with drums actually? How do you think you bass lines with the drums?

Sure, in Symphony X, you have the guitar doing the very complicated parts and then you have the keyboard doing kind of a counter-melody to it. So as a bass player, I have to decide: “Ok, am I gonna play with the guitar or am I gonna play with the drums?” And a lot of the time, it’s much tighter if I play with the drums a nice part where we’re together. It really gives a groove to the song. That’s the job of a bass player: you have to work with the drummer like a team; he’s your closest buddy on that stage.

And is this what makes bass so exciting, the fact that you’re in between drums and guitar?

Sure, the guitar player just has to play his part but as a bass player, you can either play with the guitar or the drums. You can do so many different things within a song and you can be really creative. There’s so much room for creativity with the bass and that’s what makes it so attractive to me.

The list of bands and project that you participate or have been participated in is huge! Where do this thirst for collaboration in so many different projects and band come from?

In Symphony X, we come out with record maybe once every four years, so there’s a lot of down time, and I like to keep working. So many bands come to me and ask if I can work with them. I have plenty of time to do all these other projects. I love doing it. When it comes to music and metal, I’m a workaholic. Although it’s a lot to remember every day, learning new songs, it’s still a lot of fun and very rewarding.

Do you have some Symphony X news to give?

Yes I do! Symphony X will start recording the next album actually next week. We’re gonna start drums. The new album is written and ready to be recorded. So we will have a new album released next year and we’ll start touring gain next year. Listening to it, I think it sounds like a combination of The Odyssey (2002) meets Paradise Lost (2007). So it has a lot of classic old Symphony X elements in it. It will not be a double album. It’s gonna be as heavy as the last album. A lot of it is going back to the classic Symphony X sound. My guess is, if we’re starting recording now, it will be released next spring.

By the way, I remember seeing you guys at the Hellfest two years ago and Jason Rullo wasn’t behind the drums (note: he was replaced by John Macaluso). Has he returned since then?

Yes. Jason for a while had gotten very sick. He had problems with his heart. So we had to get a replacement for Hellfest. But now Jason is back, he feel really good. So we excited to have him back.

Have you got any other projects for the future?

Right now, no. I’m just doing Symphony X and my solo album and that’s all at the moment.

Do you think this solo album will be a one off experience or do you intend to do more of those?

Well, I’m going to see what the reaction is. If the reaction is good, then I will do a second one. If it doesn’t go over too well, then maybe I won’t [laughs].

And do you intend to tour as a solo artist?

I don’t think I’ll do a full tour but what I would like to do is special things, like a festival or a cruise, something like that. Just cool little one off gigs.

Interview conducted by phone 4th, september 2014 by Spaceman.
Retranscription, traduction and introduction: Spaceman.
Promo pics: Jatzi Nieto.
Live pics: Nicolas Gricourt.

Mike Lepond official Facebook page: www.facebook.com/mikelepondssilentassassins.

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