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Interview with Bill Berends, Mastermind PDF Print E-mail
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Saturday, 10 April 2010

By Eduard Antoniu

USA Progressive Music: Thank you very much for making yourself available for an interview. Bill Berends - Photo by David Olah

Bill Berends: Thanks for your interest.

USAProgMusic:  Stylistically, how would you describe your music to a newcomer?

Bill: Mastermind is loud, aggressive, hard rock music with strong tendencies towards instrumentals that veer off into fusion. However it is not so "outside" that only music geeks get it... at least most of the time. Some people classify the band as progressive rock, but I would really say we're a hard rock band with strong old school progressive tendencies and there is a bluesy underpinning throughout most of what we've done, disguised by passages lifted from classical music. How does that sound? Or maybe a constantly evolving rock band rooted in the past with an eye towards the future perhaps?

USAProgMusic:  How many years did the band work on Insomnia? What were some of your challenges of putting together that album?

Bill:  We worked on the album off and on for maybe 2 ½ or 3 years. We started off with a lot of enthusiasm. I had written this new material and with some new blood in the band it felt like something of a fresh beginning. One of the big challenges for me was I had converted my recording studio from analog tape to computer software-based recording. That helped in some respects and puts an incredible amount of power at your fingertips, but it also slowed things down because now you could save everything, tweak anything, manipulate the sound anyway you could imagine, so it took a while to get past that and learn how to make it sound analog again. In the analog days when your tape tracks were full, you were finished. Now in a way, it's never finished. For all intents and purposes the Insomnia album was completed in early 2004 - although I did a few minor tweaks after we signed with Lion Music - and I started letting people hear it, shopped it to the labels, but I was a bit taken aback by the reactions I got. I was accused of abandoning the prog community by some, which I thought was ridiculous. Some took it very personally and still don't talk to me to this day. People who I thought were my friends! Some of the label heads told me personally, they thought it was a great album, but they didn't know how to sell it or where it fit in and politely declined. In light of our career history I guess it is quite a controversial album, but interestingly enough, most people who are not prog aficionados have overwhelmingly expressed the opinion that this is the best album we've ever made, so you tell me. Prog or not? What difference does it make how you classify it, you either enjoy it or you don't. So ultimately the biggest challenge was finding a proper label and after fielding quite a few offers that I thought were ridiculous at best and downright insulting in some cases, we released two tunes as an EP along with a couple live studio tracks in 2005 to sell at shows and see if anyone was interested. The EP sold quite well and the feedback was very positive, but still no label interest. We wasted about a year going back and forth with a major label and big management company who expressed an interest in the band, but ultimately that never came to be which was very frustrating. At that point I was feeling really discouraged. Our search for a label continued, but at a slower pace. It wasn't until my friend Dennis Leeflang (Bumblefoot, Sun Caged) told me of his positive impressions of Lion Music that I contacted them and they were immediately interested, so here we are. I never lost faith in the music, but I did lose faith in the business people I knew and quite a few of my so called friends in the prog world as well. Anyway, I am pleased to finally see the album finally get released properly. Now on to the next one.

USAProgMusic:  How did the band get keyboardist Jens Johansson onboard?

Bill:  I met Jens almost 25 years ago in a music store in New Jersey. I wrote a little story about it on our website linked to the Excelsior! page . I had no idea who Yngwie was at the time, or Jens, I just heard him play in the store and thought 'that was incredible, I gotta know this guy!' I introduced myself and we got to be friends. After I heard his Heavy Machinery and Fission albums I knew I wanted to work with him. When we were with the Dutch East label (Prozone Records) one of the label exec's suggested we do a track together for a compilation. Well, we did the track, but the compilation never happened so we decided doing a full album together would be a cool idea. That has expanded to three albums now and I anticipate we will do more together in the future. Funny too, because I remember the day he gave me his first tracks for the demo and he told me some Finnish band called Stratovarius had asked him to record with them... I sometimes wonder what may have happened had he never received that offer.

USAProgMusic:  What prompted the Berends brothers to open themselves up to female players in the line-up? Laura Johnson on bass for a couple of years until early 2007 and Tracy McShane still on vocals probably since circa 2002? How did you get them in the band?

Bill:  It basically went like this... after we toured with Fish and had been doing a lot of live shows, I came to the conclusion that I didn't enjoy singing that much, so we made an instrumental album Excelsior! The record labels complained that instrumental albums were difficult to sell, so I thought if we are going to need a singer, I want it to be a good one and Lisa [Bouchelle] was the best singer I knew personally at the time. I saw her do some hard rock stuff at an open jam one night, ran the idea by her and she was interested, so I started writing with her voice in mind which became the Angels of the Apocalypse album. I knew going into it that she had her own thing going on and wouldn't be around forever, so when I met Tracy [McShane] she seemed like a logical replacement since we now had to have a female voice to continue playing the Angels of the Apocalypse material which was still fairly new. Once she was on board I started writing with her voice in mind which became Insomnia. As for Laura [Johnson], we didn't seek out a female bassist, we just found her on Craigslist. She came and auditioned and was the best bassist we could find at the time, so she was in. I enjoyed the idea of two women in the band, it made us less of the "chick singer with backup band" kind of thing which is how most people see a band with a female singer, and it made us all that much more unique. Audiences liked it as well. Unfortunately for us, Laura had life priorities other than playing music and left as abruptly as she came.

USAProgMusic:  What made you write large scale compositions like “Brainstorm” or “Tragic Symphony”?

Bill:  I did it so we didn't have to take breaks on stage and talk to the audience. Seriously. I just want to play music, I never set out to be an entertainer and stage banter with an audience is not something I am always comfortable with. Also of course, we were influenced by the longer suite type compositions of the early progressive bands... the working title of Brainstorm was 'guitarkus' so you know where we were coming from at the time. It was also a challenge to craft larger works, something I had never really done before, so I wanted to try it. With later lengthier works like “Tragic Symphony, “Triumph of the Will”, and “Until Eternity”, I was shooting more for symphonic type structures composed of a few smaller movements tied together thematically. I started to get really turned off to the idea of extended compositions when the various 'nu-prog' bands began touting their 'progressiveness' by simply promoting the length of their songs. Press releases saying "featuring a 40-minute suite" just bugged me. It could be, and quite often is, 40 minutes of crap, but because it is 40 minutes long it must be something, right? That's ridiculous. Another reason I started to get away from it is, in today's fast paced world of text messages and twitters, 5 minutes is the new 20 minutes and 10 is the new 40. Having said all that, I may one day write another large scale work. The truth is I really think of Insomnia as a large scale work, it just happens to be broken up into 10 individual tracks, but it works best as a whole and should be listened to that way.

USAProgMusic:  How did your web presence (USENET/Google Groups, official website - the band's and your very own, MySpace , FaceBook , Twitter, etc.) impact the band's success?

Bill: The Internet was hugely beneficial to spreading the word about the band and for meeting people in far away places. It still is, but less so now I think, because practically everybody on earth is online and it's much harder to get attention that way. We started online well before the World Wide Web or Netscape, the first real web browser. Mastermind was one of the very first bands to have a web site back in 1994 when a computer science student and fan (whose name I regretfully forget) set up a small web site for us. Eventually that led to me taking control of the website, then our own domain. All the rest is just expected these days from anyone making music, or anything else for that matter. MySpace, FaceBook, Twitter, Youtube... it's getting ridiculous, the number of sites vying for attention and jockeying for position. It seems Facebook is the winner now, but how long until the next thing comes along? Anyway the 'net was good for us and I think the whole apparent resurgence in prog-rock is solely an Internet phenomenon.

USAProgMusic:  How did Mastermind ended up headlining live dates in Japan in 1997?

Bill:  Because we were able to! Our Tragic Symphony album was released on a major label in Japan and people there were aware of the band it seems. Our back catalog had just been released and there was something of a buzz going at the time. Since we had arranged some U.S. gigs for the Japanese band Ars Nova, they in turn took care of arrangements for us in Japan. It wouldn't have been possible without Ars Nova, my friend Hiroshi Masuda, who later went on to form Poseidon Records. In fact, the Mastermind tour of Japan was Poseidon's first concert event. Hiroshi was one of the first people I met online via the Gibraltar mailing list. Anyway, it worked out very nicely. I would love to return to Japan. I enjoyed visiting and performing there very much.

USAProgMusic:  How did Mastermind get the gig to open for Rush in New Jersey that same year?

Bill:  Phil Antolino, our bass player at the time, worked for the promoter so whenever a progressive rock type band came to Philadelphia they gave us the opening slot. Besides Rush, we also opened for Joe Satriani, Gong, and a few others.

USAProgMusic: Are there any live show possibilities in the near future? What band(s) would you still like to open for?

Bill:  Anything is possible. We are trying to put a live show together now. If we can get it together I would like to play with any band whose audience may appreciate what we are doing. As for being an opening act, usually you have to buy your way into these situations and it takes big money, so unless we get some financial support I don't see it happening too often. I'd rather be in a position where people wanted to open for us.

USAProgMusic:  Where do you think the future of prog music is going (in your own opinion), since you've been "around the block"?

Bill:  I have no idea. I do know it doesn't seem to have very good health or retirement plans.

USAProgMusic:  One last question, please: what are your plans and future projects? Thanks again for making this interview possible.

Bill:  As I said we are trying to put together a live band to get out and support the album, but making it work is going very slowly so I don't know if it is going to happen. Otherwise, I have recorded a "Bill Berends" solo album of instrumental guitar music which I finished up just recently. That's really where my head was going musically before we got the offer from Lion Music, which snapped me back into Mastermind mode. Getting back in touch with just the guitar and amp, no frills or effects. No firm release plans for that yet, but it is coming. And, Rich [Berends] and I have recorded some basic tracks of new music that is potentially the basis for another Mastermind album. To a large degree what we do next depends on how well this album sells and what kind of interest it may generate. I have lots of unheard, unreleased music written, hours of it in fact, it just depends on how I can get it out there.

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