Machines Of Grace – Guitarist Matt Leff
Interviewed by: Anders Sandvall
Thanks to Jan Rosenberg at CMM Marketing for the help to get this interview done.
Thanks to CMM Marketing for the promo pictures of the band.
Here is an interview I did with guitarist Matt Leff in the new band Machines Of Grace. The well known Zak Stevens (ex- Savatage, Circle2Circle) and Jeff Plate (Trans Sibiran Orchestra, ex- Savatage, Metal Church) are two of the members of this new group. Leff and I talked about the band and their debut album amongst other things including the impact that Ronnie James Dio had on Matt Leff and the band. Machines Of Grace plays hardrock and even though their album has been out for about a year now I thought it was time for the band to be featured in metal-rules.com.
What can you tell us about your self titled debut album that was released last year? When was the album recorded and did it take long to record?
The album has been 20 years in the making! It actually started in the Musician’s Institute of Technology, Hollywood CA. That’s right, Zak and I first met at MI in 1988 after I had almost made it into Ronnie James Dio’s band. After we graduated, Zak and I moved to Boston, found Jeff and started a band called Wickedwitch. We played a couple hundred shows together in the Boston area as Wickedwitch. After Zak and Jeff went to Savatage, we always kept in touch with each other and frequently talked about revisiting the Wickedwitch material. This is essentially what the Machines of Grace record is, all the songs on the album are from 20 years ago. We re-wrote a few things, replaced the bass player, changed some lyrics, found a different band name, added new instrumentation and gave the whole thing a modern mix and production.
Who writes the material in the band? What are the lyrics about?
Matt has always brought in the music, the riffs, and Zack had a great ability to develop a melody over his playing. Matt and I would jam together for hours, recording everything, and from there we could listen back and put the right pieces in the right places. The three of us were very open to each other’s ideas, and we were always thinking the same thing to begin with. The lyrics are about a number of things: world affairs, crooked people, relationships. I wrote most of the lyrics to Promises, some of Soul To Fire, a few lines/words here and there, and Zack wrote the rest. He has a great ability to write a melody, and his timing is great because of his drumming background. He rewrote a couple of the songs completely because after years go by you have a different take on certain things. He was going through some life changes and he brought some excellent new ideas to the music. And, some of the music changed too, so he had a new blueprint to work from. We take pride in the fact that there is nothing offensive or abrasive in the lyrics. They are reflective and inspiring for the most part. We love heavy music, but we are not angry or bitter people.
How would you like to describe what kind of music you play? I think it’s quite hard to define what kind of metal you play.
When we began writing and developing a sound, I would say we were melodic metal. Now I would say it is melodic hard rock. The definition of metal has changed over the years. What was heavy, aggressive and underground in the past has become mainstream. Here again, our approach to recording these songs changed too. Zack’s vocals and Matt’s guitar playing gave the music a new sound. Paul Hagar, our producer, did a great job in rounding off the jagged edges and giving us a slick sounding CD.
Who has done the cover art work of the album and what do you think of it? Do you think it reflects the music on the album?
We worked with an artist, Geoffrey Rousselot, from France, we’re all happy with the concept. Some of his previous work got us interested, and he gave us exactly what we were looking for. The MOG initials are in the design, and it really represents the style of the music.
Why didn’t you name the album?
I suppose we could have named it several things, but it was our first and it made sense that it was self-titled. We did have a bunch of names we were discussing but in the end we decided it should just be “Machines of Grace”.
Your singer Zak Stevens says this about the album “To me, it’s got great songwriting with a hard rock edge and strong commercial appeal” what do you think of that statement, can you agree with it?
I totally agree with that. It’s one of my favourite CDs, it’s good anytime, anywhere. I believe any rock/metal fan can enjoy this. To me, Zack’s vocals and melodies make it accessible for anyone.
Have you shot any video to any of the songs on the album?
No, we have not.
Have you read any reviews of the album? Do you care about what the media and the press writes and what they think of your work?
We have read reviews, of course. And we are fully aware that everyone has a different opinion. I have my tastes in music as well, and there are certain things I don’t care for, but I totally respect anyone that pursues their ideas and works hard at their craft. Most all of the reviews have been positive and respectful, and we appreciate that. And criticism always helps too, makes you work harder.
What reactions have you had from fans regarding the album? Do they like it?
I believe so. We have had a tremendous reaction from fans. As I said earlier, most reviews and comments have been positive. The album is pretty long about one hour and the song “This Time” is featured twice, both in a regular version and in an acoustical shape. How come you featured two versions of the song? When we were mixing that song, I asked Paul Hager to play it for
me with only my acoustic guitar and Zack. No drums, no bass, no big production… just Zack and I. As soon as we heard it, we both thought it was fantastic. Without the band in the mix, it gives the song a whole different feel and Zack’s voice sounds incredible. We thought it was the perfect way to end the CD.
Do you think that fans of Zak Stevens and Jeff Plate are gonna enjoy the album?
Yes I do. As I said before, the response has been nothing but positive. Fans seem to be pleasantly surprised that this did not sound like Savatage or Circle2Circle. It gives the fans some insight into where we came from before joining Savatage. And honestly, the years of doing shows and writing I WickedWitch prepared us for that gig.
How come you chose to work with Hager and do you think that you’re gonna work together on the next album with Machines Of Grace as well?
Paul is amazing. I’ve done several records with him and I view him
as a 5th member of the band. We think alike and many times I don’t even have to tell him what I’m thinking. He just does it and I say “wow, I love that”. He’s also very good with guitar and bass sounds. There’s a reason bands like Miley Cyrus and the Goo Goo Dolls hire him, he’s just awesome to work with!
Paul has been doing great work with major acts for years, in the studio and live. He was our soundman back when Wickedwitch was doing the circuit in New England, and he produced one of our demos. It made perfect sense to have him involved. He came from the same scene we did, he always believed in what we were doing, and he brought a lot of knowledge and experience to the music.
Did the band gather in the studio and record everything together or how did the studio work go down?
Due to everyone’s schedules and the fact we don’t live near each other, all the recording was done separately. It started with Jeff and I doing drums at Pyramid Sound in Cortland, New York. Chris and I got all the guitars and bass tracks recorded in the Boston area and when that was done, we shipped the music to Zak and he recorded his vocals in Florida. When all the recording was done, I flew to Los Angeles and Paul and I mixed it out there. Finally, it was mastered in New York City.
Were any of the band members part of the finishing parts of the album like mixing, mastering or editing?
It was mostly done by Paul Hager and I but Chris also took part in the mastering session.
Tell us more about the band like when was Machines Of Grace founded and who is the founder and bandleader?
Well, as we said earlier the original band was formed in 1989 but Machines of Grace came to life in 2008. We make all our decisions collectively as a group so there is no bandleader. Jeff and I handle all the b and business but there really isn’t a leader per se.
Many of the members are really well known musicians and you could call the band an all-star act, what do you think of being referred to as an all-star band?
I would consider that a compliment, and we all appreciate that. This refers to the fanbase we have built through TSO, Savatage, C2C, Metal Church, Trigger Effect, etc., and they know the intensity and commitment we bring to the table. I believe those people are happy that we reunited to make music again.
Where does the band name come from and how did you come up with the idea to name the band Machines Of Grace?
We spent quite a bit of time going through hundreds of different names before we decided on Machines of Grace. I remember for a while there, I wasn’t sure we’d ever find a name that we all agreed upon. One thing we did know is we didn’t want to use Wickedwitch any longer, it just didn’t fit the music after everything had been rewritten. One afternoon I was in a book store and saw a book titled “Mechanical Grace”. We had been toying with the words “Machine” and “Machines” because we thought they sounded cool, so when I saw “Mechanical Grace”, I put them together and came up with Machines of Grace. I also felt it represented the music accurately, so I went to work and tried to sell the concept to the rest of the guys. I’m glad we all agreed on the name, I think we all really like it. In my mind the name represents power, grace, sexiness, maturity. These are all things I see and hear when I look at who we are as a group and the music we create together. This was honestly one of the hardest decisions to make. The music and recording were the easy parts. Coming up with a name drove us crazy for months.
Was it given from the start what kind of music you were gonna play?
Well, we all knew what the music sounded like originally but I had no idea what the end result was going to be. In my mind we were going to make the old songs sound as modern as we possibly could. I think we achieved that to some extent while still retaining the original vibe of what we created 20 years ago. This whole situation is very unique, going back and recording music that was written years ago. If we do another record, then we’ll all get to see what
kind of material this band is capable of writing today, it will most likely be much different.
Have you and bassist Chris Rapoza been involved in any other known acts besides this band?
Chris and I have played together in a few different bands, the most notable of which was called Trigger Effect and we toured with Iron Maiden as an opening act in 2000. I also played in a band called Adam Bomb for a short time, which was signed to Geffen Records in the late 80’s.
Is Machines Of Grace a project or a band?
Honestly, I never understood the importance of this question, and we have been asked this a lot. Does the music sound different depending on the answer? We are not a band of young guys running together with only one main goal as we were 20 years ago. We are adults now with a lot of other responsibilities, interests and priorities. But, there is no doubt that the chemistry and combination of players on this CD make the music what it is. In that respect, this project is a band… how’s that?
Do you all live in the same town or in nearby cities?
We don’t. I live in Massachusetts, Chris lives nearby in Rhode Island, Jeff lives in up state New York and Zack lives in Florida. Modern technology allows us to be a band without living in the same area.
Is it hard to get together and rehearse when you’re not living in the same town?
Not really, when you’re playing with a certain calibre of musician, things like rehearsals become less important. We rehearse on our own and when we do get together to rehearse, everyone is extremely well prepared.
As we all know did Ronnie James Dio tragically pass away earlier this year, what are you’re feelings towards his passing?
It was a very sad day. You hate seeing anyone you know and like suffering, so now he is in a much better place. Ronnie is from Up state NY as I am, we had a small connection there, and this was always talked about whenever we met. He was always a gentleman, friendly, very polite, the true model of a professional.
He is and will always be missed.
Are you and the band members fans of RJD?
Oh yes, we all are! In the rock world, it is almost impossible not to be. The quality, and quantity, of work is awesome, and his personality went beyond that.
Have you been inspired in any way by Ronnie James Dio?
I know we’re all inspired by him in one way or another but when I was attending the Guitar Institute of Technology in 1988, I found out RJD was looking for a new guitarist. I sent in my demo and got a call from Ronnie’s wife inviting me to come in and audition. She said I was very lucky to have been chosen because Ronnie had gone through a couple thousand demos and only selected a few people to audition. The guys who were chosen were Rowen Robertson, Doug Aldrich and I. As we all know, Rowen got the gig but I got to spend an entire afternoon playing with Dio and his band and hanging out with their management. Ronnie asked me to play a few of the songs from my demo because he really liked them, so it was an incredible experience and one that I’ll never forget. He was such a nice guy, I was very sorry to hear he had passed.
What was the first album that you heard with Dio?
Rainbow Live. I was too young at the time to really understand what I was hearing, but it grabbed my attention and i couldn’t stop listening to it. Mine was Live Evil. I just about melted when I heard Children of the Sea and Heaven and Hell. That’s great stuff!
What era with Dio do you like the best?
Rainbow Live and Black Sabbath’s Heaven and Hell. Yup, Heaven and Hell is the one for me.
Was it easy for you to land a record deal?
In Europe it was easier than the US and other markets. We don’t have a record deal outside of Europe so no, it wasn’t easy for us to land a deal.
Were there many labels that showed interest for Machines Of Grace?
We had a few here and there but the state of the music industry today is pretty bad and a lot of labels are hurting. We’re all happy to be working with Wolfgang and the folks at SAOL.
You inked a deal with SAOL/H’Art/Zebralution but how come you chose to sign on for them?
Wolfgang Rott has been a friend and associate for years, and we trusted he was the man for the job. Zack and I have known him since our days in Savatage, and he also worked with me in Metal Church.
Are you happy with the work the label have put into the band and the album so far?
Yes, they’ve been very good working with us. We just got offered to do 23 dates with a very well known metal icon in Europe, and that came straight through the label. Hopefully we can do the tour!
Is the album released worldwide yet? If not when will it be released worldwide?
It’s available through traditional retailers in Europe and online digitally through iTunes, our website, and everywhere else.
According to your website are you now without a record deal? What has happened?
Other than SAOL, we have never been signed to a label. Perhaps that will change in the future, if there are any labels out there who are interested, let us know!
Have you done a lot of touring yet?
It’s been difficult for us to tour due to everyone’s schedules but we hope to do a bunch of live shows during the summer of 2011.
Is the band active on the internet I mean on MySpace and Facebook and so on?
Yes, we’re on both MySpace and Facebook as well as a bunch of other social media sites. The easiest way to find us is by starting at the band’s official website and following the other links from there. www.machinesofgrace.net is our website.
Do you get a lot of mail from fans? What’s the most common question you get?
The most common question is “when are you guys going to play live”.
Who runs your websites?
Net Music Promotions in Los Angeles built everything and we maintain most of it ourselves.
Have you been over to Europe and performed anything this past summer?
We had an opportunity to tour Europe with Stryper last year but we were unable to do any of the dates due to scheduling and financial restrictions.
When can we expect to see Machines Of Grace in Scandinavia?
Possibly some time in 2011, I know we all would love to play in Scandinavia! It would be great t team up with a popular headliner to help introduce us to the fans there. Like, say… Pagan’s Mind! I’m a big fan.
With thought of the other members involvement in other bands is it hard to gather everyone in order to go out on tour?
Yes, it is hard. My main priority is the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and with the Spring tours developing it is taking up a lot of my year. Zack has commitments with Circle2Circle, and Matt and Chris also have business commitments. We need all of this to line up properly so we can tour, and we have every intention to do so when it is right for all of us.
Your debut album have been out for about a year now are you currently working on new material or on a new album?
We have a lot of material to draw on from 20 years ago and I’ve written a bunch of material for a new album as well. We’ll probably start recording some new material in early 2011.
When can we expect to find the next album by Machines Of Grace out in stores?
With any luck, we’ll have something new out in the next 12 months.
Could you give the readers three great reasons why they should buy your debut album?
Strong elements of all types of rock.
Should I keep going?
Well, that was all that I and metal-rules.com had for now. Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions, do you have any words of wisdom for the fans and readers?
Buy our record so we can go to Europe and play this stuff live!
Good luck in the future and I really love to see you on a stage near me in the near future :).
Thank you for doing this.
More info about the band