Heart of Steel: Interviews

Interviewed by Rick

When the conversation turns to guitar heroes this man's name is rarely mentioned by the casual music listener. Its a shame because James Byrd is one of the better players to ever strap on a six string. From his days in Fifth Angel to his current symphonic output, James Byrd has never lost his edge on the fret board. I recently had the opportunity to pose these questions to him which cover everything from his past with Fifth Angel to his latest release: ANTHEM.


You have a new CD out on Lion Music called ANTHEM. Is it true that you started this CD once but scrapped the songs and started over after the events of 9/11?

Yes. I always write music that reflects my environment. September 11th changed everyone's environment. I realized that I had to begin over again when I tried to continue with the album I was working on. I just felt no connection or further sense of importance in what I was doing. So after a couple of months of floundering about trying to move forward with it and feeling as though I was pulling teeth, I just gave up and started with a fresh slate so to speak.

 

 

Can you talk a bit about some the specific songs from ANTHEM and speak about the lyrics and what they mean to you? Do you have any favourites?

Each track reflects my thoughts as events unfolded after 9/11. I can recall that when we recorded the vocal for "Anthem -dealt by darkness-" Michael and I had just witnessed the destruction of American Airlines flight 587 over queens New York over our morning coffee. I just remember the feeling we had that day and I think the track drips with passion. "Omen" is more a stream of consciousness type of writing that creates imagery with words. "Messages from Home" was my message to those who stand in harms way for us. Without going through every track, "The Price of War" is probably my favorite track on the album. I like it because it really tells a story and I wrote it in the 3rd person. For me this is more interesting because I had to try to capture a vision someone else would have, and the idea of being on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf at night just seems almost alien to me. I think that track really paints a picture and has power.

 

 

Why did you feel that the material you had written before was no longer of any use?

I just didn't identify with the mood of the music. I don't need to beat the hell out of an idea in hopes of "salvaging" a song. I don't work that way. Writing music should be completely effortless, and when it's connected to your feelings, it really is. I don't actually spend much time with the basic structure of a song. Whatever it is, it comes to me very quickly and fully formed and I've learned not to second guess myself. I would rather just write another song than try to "twist" one that's already written. I guess I kind of view them as little gifts from some unknown "beyond", and I feel they're "right" the way they come to me.

 

 

Will we see any of those songs show up in the future?

No, I don't think so.

 

 

Why did you choose not to advertise the CD as a collection of songs about the terror attacks. Wouldn't that have attracted more attention to the album's release?

Once enough shock wore off from the attack that I remembered that I had to deliver an album, just about the first thing that came to mind was that there would, inevitably, be all kinds of "cashing-in" on the tragedy. The thought made me a bit sick to be honest, but it's an extremely unfortunate aspect of the darker side of human nature that it was entirely predictable. My intuition told me that this particular event, would probably bring every Tom, Dick and Harry out of the woodwork, playing on people's sympathies in a ploy for personal recognition and gain. So the short answer is that it probably would have "increased sales" but that I did not want my motives as an artist contaminated that way. Any "tribute" was going to have to stand on content alone, not "profit" from something so evil.

 

 

Now that it has been almost a year since that horrendous day, have the emotions that you used to create Anthem changed in anyway?

I'm just as angry, but I've become very cynical as to our government's demonstrated refusal to do the obvious. When to this day, 90 percent of all checked airline baggage is still un-searched, our borders are still unsecured, and immigration to this country is at record high levels, something is seriously, terribly wrong with that picture. It's as if they almost want it to happen again. It's incredibly disturbing to me.

 

 

Can you talk a bit about the recording of Anthem. Where it was recorded and did you use traditional techniques or more modern technology such as Pro Tools?

 Yes, modern technology. The last album is probably the last album I'll record on tape decks. The quality of recording on hard disk is much better and the control one has when mixing the tracks is incredible.

 

 

How do you handle the orchestration that is on Anthem? Who composes the music and is it created at the same time as the initial song or added afterwards?

I write the music and words, and I compose all the orchestrations. Although I initially begin writing with my guitar, the parts I write first are for the piano. I just use my guitar to show Brian the parts. Once the piano is established, everything is built around that. My guitars are the last thing done. I think that the piano holds the most concise aspects of the music from a beginning stand point. It has the polyphony, range, and dynamics, to create the best outline for further development. I think there's a reason the piano is associated more than any other instrument with composition, and this is it.

 

 

How did you find Michael James Flatters to provide vocals for your last couple of CDs?

I hooked up with Michael through another vocalist I had contacted when looking for a vocalist. He couldn't do my album, so he recommended Michael, who coincidentally turned out to be familiar with my work in Fifth Angel and actually a big fan of the band. He's been just an outstanding guy to work with on every level.

 

 

Why did you go with the Byrd moniker on your last couple of releases instead of Atlantis Rising?

I wanted to "turn over a new leaf" on a number of levels. I wanted to pursue music that was much more orchestrated and symphonic, and I also felt I had a fresh start with a new label who conveyed to me that they wanted to treat me well in business. We were also on the brink of the millennium. So for me, it was just a way to mark what I think will be my new direction for some time musically.

 

 

Whatever happened to Freddy Krumins who provided vocals for Atlantis Rising and would you consider ever working with him or any of that bands members again?

I have lost track of him. I'm very happy with Michael, but Freddy and I were always on decent terms. I don't even know if he's still singing to be honest.

 

 

You were a member of Fifth Angel for the debut CD. Why did you leave that band and with the recent glut of re-unions would you consider working again with Fifth Angel?

Oye. I get asked this question in nearly every interview. It's like rehashing a 13 year old divorce, it just gets to be a drag. So I will give you the briefest possible answer, but short answers do not really explain what happened because it's complex. But I was fired from the band without notice, immediately after signing a new partnership agreement which relinquished certain important rights I had in the band. It was a stab in the back, it was done for money and a right to continue using the name without me, and if one wants all the extended and lurid details of what's really a "heavy metal soap opera", I'm just not up for it today. Sorry.

 

 

You contributed a solo to the Jason Becker Tribute "Warmth in the Wilderness". How did you get involved with the project and why that particular solo?

The Becker tribute is how Lion Music and I actually got hooked up in the first place. Lion heard some of my music on mp3.com and knew who I was. They emailed me and asked me if I'd play. I said "sure". I already had ‘flying beyond the 9' in the can when this happened, and I was looking for a deal. About two weeks after I accepted the request to play on the Becker tribute, I emailed them and asked them if they wanted to hear a new album I needed to find a deal for. They did, and that's how that happened. I was not really in a position to produce a complete track for the Becker tribute because I was finishing my album, so Lion asked me to contribute a solo and sent me the track to play on.

 

 

I get the feeling when I am listening to your music, that you are heavily influenced by music from the 70s. Could you fill me in on some of your influences and how they find their way into your music?

Yeah, it's nearly all 70's influences. I think it's more a matter of a general perspective than any particular band. I like a lot of vocals, I like a certain type of writing that's very "song" centered, and I like "big" productions with a lot of depth. I listened to so many different types of music growing up; Hendrix, ‘Purple, Rainbow, Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush, Al DiMiola, Uli Roth, Pink Floyd, Elton John, Beatles, Andrew Lloyd Webber, UFO, Be-bop Delux, Jeff Beck Group, Return to Forever, Journey, Kansas, Robin Trower, D'Jango Reinhardt, Paco DeLucia, Beethoven, Vivaldi, Mozart, and I'm sure I've only hit on half of them here. It's a truly mixed bunch of influences.

 

 

Do you listen to any newer bands?

Having a girlfriend makes it imperative. I couldn't tell you who any of them were -I hope she doesn't read this-. I seldom actually listen to music, but when I do, and it's my choice, it's usually the local classical station. The last CD I bought was Blackmore's Night. I played that very, very loud driving to LA with my girlfriend and I ended up driving about 110 miles an hour for the full length of the CD. I liked it -if you couldn't guess-. But if you mean "Nu-metal" like "Korn", forget it. It might as well be rap as far as my taste goes. I like singers that sing and guitar players that "guitar".

As do most of our readers!!

 

On FLYING BEYOND THE 9 you decided to go with only 1 guitar track. Quite a departure from what most guitar players are doing now. Why did you choose to go that route and looking back, do you feel that the finished product came out as you had envisioned it?

I wanted the guitar to fit within the compositions, rather than being the compositions. I also wanted the actual sonic "room" for the orchestrated parts to reveal their detail. I just tired of the "wall of guitars" sound of most metal, especially since "grunge" came into being. I prefer the purity of using symphonic instruments to carry counter-melodies, and using the guitar as a fundamental just wipes out the separation and clarity of everything. Yes, I'm pretty happy with that album, and if you know me, I'm not always happy, and I'm pretty up-front about anything I think is less than perfect that I've done.

 

 

Did working like that give you an interesting ideas that you put to use on ANTHEM?

I've always been able to hear complex and finished music in my head, I just didn't have the resources to develop those ideas as fully as I'm able to now. Recording on hard disk enables me to select from a huge variety of symphonic sounds and to have enough tracks to create this music. The last album -flying beyond the 9- was first recorded on 16 track digital, then the tracks were flown into PC for the additional orchestrations. It was sort of a bridging point between recording the old way, and the new. On ‘Anthem', everything was recorded direct to disk on PC and the sound is markedly cleaner I think.

 

 

Its interesting to note that though you are from the United States, your last couple of releases have been on Lion Music which is based in Finland. How did you get in contact with this label and why not release your music on a North American label?

They were the people who stepped forward and it's been a positive experience for the first time in this industry for me. If there's an American independent label who want to distribute my music and are ethical, I'd love to hear from them. I don't think the music scene is too healthy here apart from the fact that no matter how bad it gets, there will always be bands and artists who keep going anyway. I went through that here with Shrapnel and managed to make it out the other side, but this is a very rough business. Lion Music has been a breath of fresh air, and frankly I needed one.

 

 

Metal seems to be making a comeback in many parts of the world yet North America seems to be far behind in picking up on the growing popularity of metal. What are your feelings, if any, on the metal scene in North America?

I don't trust any of these so called "trends", whether reported on by someone, or actually polled. I think that the fan base for great music never went away, only access to them was limited. People who -for example- liked Journey in the 70's didn't all of a sudden decide that they had to have the newest hip-hop album. The industry as known through the major labels decided to ignore them, period. Why? Because they are one dimensional, have no real understanding of music as "art", and their values are devoid of any aspects other than the biggest sales to the easiest demographic to part with their money. The demographic targeted used to be between 17 and 35. Now it's between 9 and 12. That says everything about values in the culture. I don't think record companies have ever been very smart to be honest. Just consider all the labels that passed on the Beatles before one guy said "I'll give you a chance". I think that for them, they just throw shit at a fan and see what ends up on the wall. If it sticks, they're "geniuses".

 

 

Can you speak a bit about your training? Did you pick up the guitar on your own or did you take lessons?

I had a hand-full of lessons from my cousin and a couple of guitar teachers. My cousin taught me how to tune the guitar and play a few chords. I've had maybe 7 or 8 lessons in my whole life. I learned to play by playing along with my records and learning the guitar parts and solos exactly.

 

 

What words of wisdom do you have for young people just picking up the guitar?

Play in tune, please! Learn to be discriminating in your assessment of guitar playing. If you think someone who's awful is "God on the guitar", you'll end up being awful. Record yourself and be critical. Don't practice mistakes. That's about it, but it takes a lot of self-discipline. I don't think a teacher is the answer most of the time. If you're really motivated, and have self-discipline, a world of great players will be your teachers because you'll take responsibility for reaching your goals yourself and you won't need someone to smack your knuckles with a ruler.

 

 

I notice that in most of your pictures you are holding a Flying V. Is that your favourite guitar and could you give me a rundown of what equipment you use to get your sound?

It's not a Flying V. It is a Byrd TM Super Avianti ® guitar that I designed, built, and patented nationally. It's not actually shaped like a ‘flying V' if you compare them. The guitar has a unique patented body design called The Balance Compensated Wing ® and a unique patented neck and head stock. The electronics and scale length are based on the Fender Stratocaster ® , but improved. I use only my own Byrd guitars these days. I use a Marshall model 1987 50 watt "plexi" amp, all stock, and an ancient Marshall speaker cabinet with 8 ten inch speakers in it. I use a DOD250 over drive pedal, and a Jim Dunlop Cry Baby wah pedal. That's it. I don't have a rack or any special effects, just the guitar, and OD box, and the amp.

 

 

You have an official website which can be found at www.jamesbyrd.com Do you think the internet has impacted the way that music is made available to the masses and has it helped you in anyway to make your music more accessible?

I wouldn't be here without it -pun intended-. Yes, it's made a huge difference. I am able to reach fans that are widely spread around the globe. When you're not a platinum artist, you need to reach as many fans as possible, and the net has made it possible without going bankrupt trying to do it.

 

 

Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions James. Is there anything else that we haven't covered and you would like to tell the readers of Metal-Rules.com?

Sure, you're very welcome. I always assume people don't know me, and at least half the time I'm right. So to those who don't know my music, have a visit to www.jamesbyrd.com where you can find links to some mp3's and samples, and see if you like it! To those who've remained faithful fans over many, many years, I'm truly thankful that I've had your support, so thank you very much.

Thanks James.