Guitarist Jeff Teets and singer Sarah Teets – MindMaze
Interviewed by: Anders Sandvall
Thanks to Emil Westerdahl at Inner Wound Recordings for get this interview done. Thanks to Inner Wound Recordings for the promo pictures of the band. Promo pictures taken by Jatzi Nieto. Live promo pictures taken by Charlie Gibb at Charlie Gibb Photos
The Pennsylvania based heavy/progressive metal act MindMaze recently released their second album BACK FROM THE EDGE and I hooked up with the siblings Jeff and Sarah Teets, who run the band, in order to get to know the band a little bit better. We talked about the new album, the well known bass player Mike LePond who plays session bass on the album. I also got to know more about the bands past and what they’re up to in the near future.
Thanks a lot for taking the time to answer my questions. Are you ready to kick off the interview?
Jeff: Sure! Fire away!
Sarah: Go for it!
The brand new album from MindMaze is called BACK FROM THE EDGE. What does the title mean? Does it have any special meaning to the band?
Sarah: Well the song itself is really about overcoming adversity. That seems to be a theme for our opening album tracks because Never Look Back was really the same type of song in that regard. I just think it’s a really great and inspiring way to start out an album. Being in a band and playing music is definitely an everyday struggle, so these types of songs just really signify us pushing forward.
How long did it take to write and record the album?
Jeff: The recording process began the first weekend of February 2014 and we were mixing the album by late May. It went for pressing at the beginning of August. All in all it was a very quick process, but still delightfully stressful, of course.
Did you re-use any material on the album or was all of the songs newly written?
Jeff: All of the material on Back From the Edge is new to the public, but some of the ideas for the songs go back a couple of years.
Who in the band writes the music and lyrics?
Sarah: We’ve pretty much established a good working pattern of Jeff writing the music and me writing the lyrics. A lot of times Jeff will get a rough idea and structure of a song together and then we’ll work on it as a full band. A few songs on the new album have some co-writing contribution from Kalin and Rich.
Does the rest of the band have any say when it comes to the material, or is it Jeff who dictates the terms when it comes to that?
Jeff: Everyone has a voice in creating the material, but the role of the others is more from an arrangement standpoint than bringing in specific musical ideas. Two songs on the new album were sparked by others (“Onward – Destiny Calls II” by our drummer Kalin, and “Moment of Flight” by our former bassist and still live bassist Rich Pasqualone), but usually I will get some riffs, chord structures, and things together, maybe even recording a demo before bringing it the other guys. At that point though, everyone still has a voice and usually the songs get modified a bit. I never write anyone else’s parts specifically, except for maybe the style of a drum pattern under a riff.
Do you think that the band has gone through any musical changes if you compare BACK FROM the EDGE with the previous album MASK OF LIES? If so in what way?
Jeff: I definitely think the new album is a bit different. The basic formula isn’t terribly altered, but I think it’s just improved upon on all fronts. The production and mix are better, the instruments and performances are better, and the songwriting is better. There’s a bit more of a focus on having more concise songs alongside the epics, and we think the album is a lot more coherent and focused than Mask of Lies was.
The art-work on the album is made by Carl-André Beckston. What do you and the band think of the art-work? Was it as you had expected it to be?
Sarah: Honestly, we knew we were working with a professional when we contacted Carl-Andre, but the finished products have far surpassed our expectations. All the artwork has turned out exactly as we hoped it would, honestly better. We were extremely happy with the album cover for Back From the Edge in particular and we’ve received a lot of positive feedback on it as well.
The band released MASK OF LIES on your own without any help from a label. Do you consider BACK FROM THE EDGE as your debut album since it was released by a label or is MASK OF LIES the bands debut release?
Jeff: We definitely consider Mask of Lies to be our debut album. The “rules” have changed a lot in the past several years and there’s an increasing acceptance of independent bands and releases in this field. The production and packaging quality was up to standard and it was very well received. We stand firmly by it, even though we think we’ve improved upon the formula.
Mike LePond is session bassist on the album, how did he end up with you guys?
Sarah: We knew Mike as a friend for a few years and when Rich made the decision to leave the band officially, Mike was our first choice to contact. We figured it might be a longshot being how busy Mike is, but he ended up being available and we just went from there.
What happened with your old bass player Rich Pasqualone? When and why did he quit the band?
Sarah: It was more or less his decision. Before we went into the studio to record Back From the Edge, we sat down and had a discussion about going further because Rich had a lot of interest in other things and decided to go back to school full time, so he wasn’t sure if he could continue with such a serious commitment. He decided to quit as a full time member, but he still plays a lot of our live shows with us. It was a really good compromise so he still gets to play, but he’s not as responsible as it would if he continued as a full time member.
Does the band have a steady bass player today?
Jeff: Yes and no. Our arrangement with Rich and Mike is pretty mutual beneficial for all parties involved, so we really see no reason to change it. The process of auditioning people and trying out new musicians is almost always full of issues, so we just don’t’ see the need to introduce potential drama or obstacles when everyone’s quite happy with the way things are now.
Some well known names is making guest appearances on the album like Jens Johansson, Matt Johnsen and Lord Tim how did you manage to recruit these guys to the album?
Jeff: Honestly, all of the guests on the album are our friends in one way or another. I’ve never met Lord Tim in person, but these guest appearances were the result of friendships and mutual respect for one another. Matt from Pharaoh has come out to a lot of our gigs and is a strong supporter of what we do. Jeff Pouring from Maverick Hunter is a long-time friend of mine, going back about ten years. We’ve always joked we should perform together, so we finally made it happen. I was introduced to Jens at a listening party about two years ago by a mutual friend. All of these guest spots serve a purpose though – each individual track called for something I couldn’t provide – whether that was a keyboard solo, or a trade-off feel to the guitar solos calling for a juxtaposition of styles.
Some of the songs are quite long like the 10 minute “The Machine Stops” and the closing 9 minute tune “Onward (Destiny Calls 2)” what are those songs about?
Sarah: “The Machine Stops” is written about a short story by E.M. Forster, written about a futuristic, dystopian society that struggles to reclaim their own humanity before inevitably meeting their demise. It seems negative, but I actually feel it ends very positively because they realized the error of their ways and reclaimed their own feelings and emotions before the end. This is actually my favorite track on the album with the way it came out.
“Onward (Destiny Calls II) is a sequel to our song “Destiny Calls”, so as with that track it’s also about pirates. Kalin had the idea to write a sequel and I made this one about the pirates making the decision to “quit” being pirates so to speak. Haha
The bio states that your music is best described as power/progressive metal but how would you like to describe what kind of music MindMaze plays?
Jeff: I think that our sound is equal elements of traditional metal, power metal, progressive metal, and elements of hard rock and melodic sensibilities. The prog element comes a lot in the form of long, expansive songs with some odd time signatures, but there’s a strong power metal element there with the fast tempos, double bass drum patterns, and soaring vocals. The songwriting, mainly the melodic hooks owes a lot to more of a hard rock and melodic metal/AOR vibe.
The following line is taken from the bio “The new album sees the band moving further towards forging a strong identity” is that true? What’s your comment on that statement?
Jeff: Absolutely. We felt like Mask of Lies, as good as it was, was sort of like a patchwork of the various influences we had, with songs pulled together across seven years of songwriting. We all agree that the new album is a giant leap forward in terms of creating an identity and a sound that is “ours” in some way.
Are you happy with the outcome of the album or do you feel you should have done anything in a different way?
Sarah: It’s always a learning process and every time we always realize things we probably should’ve done a little differently, but that’s normal. In general we’re very happy with the way Back From the Edge turned out.
The band held a semi-unplugged release party in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and one in New Jersey. How were the parties? And what did the crowd think of the new songs?
Sarah: Both release shows went well. Roxy an Dukes in New Jersey could not have been more helpful with how everything was run with that show. It’s hard to find venues anymore that are so easy to work with. Some of the crowd was already familiar with a few of the new songs, as we’ve been playing them live for a little while now. Overall I’d say the response was great!
Studio and production
How come you chose to record the album in Brian J Anthony Studio?
Sarah: We heard of Brian from our friend John Gaffney, who worked with Brian to make albums with the band Sinister Realm. He does amazing work and he’s also located super close to us.
You Jeff produced the album but how involved was the rest of the band in the production?
Jeff: At the end of the day, everyone had at least some voice in the process. I spent a lot of time one-on-one with our engineer who recorded and mixed the record, but at every major turning point or big creative decision, the mixes or ideas were always floated around to the other members for thoughts and input. If anyone had major concerns, they got addressed, but otherwise, the band trusts me to act as the primary voice.
Is it hard to produce your own work? Isn’t it hard to stay objective?
Definitely, and it’s always about maintaining a balance between a hefty dose of proud narcissism and crippling self-doubt. At some point in mixing any record, your brain and ears begin to lose perspective, and it’s very important to learn when the time has come to say “this is finished”. Otherwise the making of the record would take an eternity and it might never be released.
Sarah , what do you think of working with Jeff in the producer’s seat?
Sarah: It really has worked out well. Jeff has a particular attention to detail with these things that the rest of us just don’t have. He’s gone to school for audio production himself, so he has a good ear to hear things and we can all trust his judgment.
Do you think that you’re going to continue to produce more albums for MindMaze Jeff?
Jeff: I think that’s a safe assumption. Everyone in the band is quite happy with the finished products we’ve been putting out, and we’re all happy filling the shoes we fill. It’s quite unlikely that we’ll feel the need to change things up. Unless I got the opportunity to work with a favorite engineer like Jacob Hansen, Andy Sneap, or Dennis Ward, I just wouldn’t see the purpose in fixing what isn’t broken.
Were any of the members part of the mixing and mastering process?
Jeff: As I said, I was the one who basically sat one-on-one with our mixing/mastering engineer and would be the main voice in the process, but the rest of the band always was in the loop about what was going and had every chance to speak up when they had any input.
Those things was made by Brian J Anthony how was it to work with him and do you think that you’re going to work more with him in the future?
Sarah: Working with Brian is great. He’s not afraid to give some input at times, but doesn’t in anyway try to impose on any of our artistic decisions. We’ll definitely be working with him again in the future.
Label and management
How did you get in touch with the Swedish label Inner Wound Recordings?
Jeff: A friend of mine named Daniel that runs the website Black Wind Metal does work with Emil, who runs Inner Wound. He suggested that we submit the album to Emil for consideration, and also helped it get noticed.
Were there many labels that showed interest in signing MindMaze?
Jeff: We actually did get approached by quite a few labels, ranging from very small ones to ones perhaps a bit bigger than Inner Wound. We received a few offers, but ultimately, none of the rest really made any sense for us. After having a lot of success releasing an album independently, we weren’t terribly anxious to give up the obvious gains for potentially empty promises.
Do you see any problems in the fact that the label is based in Sweden and you in America?
Jeff: None at all thus far. They’ve done a great job of making the album available through US distributors – far better than we could have done on our own. Also, Emil speaks better English than plenty of native speakers I’ve met, so there’s no language barrier at all. We really wanted to increase our profile and reach in Europe, so this actually made a lot of sense for us.
For how many albums are you signed for at IWR?
Jeff: Just this one, actually, which again, I think is mutually beneficial.
Are you happy with the work the label have put into the band and the album so far?
IWR is working together with the promotion label Connecting Music, what are your experiences of that co-operation?
Jeff: I can’t speak a lot about the inner workings of everything since I don’t know a ton about it, and it’s still too early to call, but based on what I’ve been seeing in the past month, everyone involved is doing a good job.
Are you currently working with any booking agency?
Jeff: Nope. As of this moment, we are still handling the vast majority of things ourselves.
Personal with Sarah Teets
I really love your voice that inhabits great power and strength, are you classically trained or are you self-taught?
Sarah: I’m more or less self-taught. I sang in choirs in high school, so I had some training there, but I never took private vocal lessons or anything.
Do you have any special singers that have inspired you in any way?
Sarah: My biggest influence in the metal world is Russell Allen of Symphony X. He’s my favorite singer and has just inspired me so much stylistically, singing and writing vocal melodies. A few of my other big influences include Glenn Hughes, Urban Breed and Jorn Lande.
How involved are you in the songwriting process?
Sarah: On Mask of Lies, Jeff wrote lyrics to a few songs, but at this point we’ve established a firm pattern of me writing all the lyrics. I will give input here and with music things, but mostly just write lyrics.
I see that you also play the flute, do you play any other instruments?
Sarah: I’ve played the flute for about 16 years now. I’m also fairly proficient in playing the oboe. I play some keyboards and I can play a tiny bit of guitar, badly. Haha
Do you play any flute on the album?
Sarah: Yes.“Onward (Destiny Calls II)” has some flute in it, as did the original “Destiny Calls”
How is it to work together with your brother?
Sarah: It’s generally very good. Every now and then we fight over silly things, as is somewhat typical with siblings, but in general our working relationship is great. We have the tendency to just naturally have similar ideas or have ideas that gel well together
What’s it like to be the only female in the band?
Sarah: Honestly, it’s not a big deal at all. I barely even notice it most of the time. I’m just a normal member of the band and being female doesn’t usually factor into things.
The bio compare your voice to singers like Bruce Dickinson, Steve Walsh and Russell Allen how does that feel?
Sarah: Awesome. I mean, those are some amazing singers and some of my biggest influences. It’s always great to be compared to the very people you’re inspired by.
When was the band founded any who is the founder?
Jeff: Originally, we were formed under the name Necromance back in August 2004. I was sort of the driving force behind the decision to get something going, but Sarah and Kalin were involved right from the very beginning. Various obstacles drove Kalin in and out of the band once or twice over the years, but the three of us have been the three main constants in the past ten years together. We changed our name to MindMaze in early 2012.
According to my info the band is based in Pennsylvania, USA. Do all of the members live in the same town?
Sarah: Actually currently, the 3 official members of the band, Jeff, Kalin and I all live in the same house. Haha. We’re all roughly from an area in eastern Pennsylvania known as the Lehigh Valley.
Where does the band name MindMaze come from?
Jeff: It’s funny. The name honestly came to me rather randomly while we were casually brainstorming possible names to consider changing the name to. We’d thought of abandoning the name Necromance before early 2012, but we could never find the right name or the timing was never right. The name came to me, and everyone really liked it, and we started to see the possibilities of pursuing using it, and got attached to it. We realized shortly afterward that it may have been lodged in my brain because of the Microsoft Encarta encyclopedia CD-Rom game entitled Mind Maze, which was a thing back in the late 90s when we were growing up. I think it was lodged subconsciously, and only after we got attached to it did we realize that, haha.
Was it given from the start that the band was going to have a woman on vocals?
Sarah: Not at all. About 10 years ago, when we first started playing together female fronted bands weren’t really popular at all, so it wasn’t even really possible to plan in advance to have a female singer. Jeff, Kalin and I just started playing together and I seemed to be the right fit and best person for the job.
Was it hard to find members to join the band?
Sarah: It’s been at times. We struggled to find a bass player when we first formed as kids. It’s usually difficult to find local musicians here who are interested in this style of music.
The band was former named Necromance, why did you change the name?
Jeff: It’s kind of a complex answer. The main reason is essentially that we all felt that since we had formed Necromance when we were 14, 15, and 16 respectively, that there was a lot of baggage from being young and immature attached to it, and we wanted to sort of move past that and clean the slate when we decided to enter the studio to begin recording our debut album Mask of Lies.
The first album MASK OF LIES came 2013 and the first edition of the album was sold out in only 14 months how did that feel?
Sarah: It was a great accomplishment to do that, especially being independent at the time and selling all the copies ourselves. It really made us feel like we could see future success releasing additional albums.
Are there any plans on re-releasing MASK OF LIES?
Sarah: We actually had it repressed months ago and have it available in our official webstore at www.mindmazeband.com.
What did media think of that album?
Jeff: Overall, the reviews of Mask of Lies were actually very, very positive. I think a lot of people were quite surprised at the production quality for an independent release, and a lot of others made positive comments about the maturity of the material for a debut release.
Has the band done a lot of live shows?
Jeff: Over the span of time since we were called Necromance, we’ve performed probably about 150 shows, but the frequency of them has increased a lot since we’ve become MindMaze and put some music out there. We average around 15-20 gigs every year, basically just taking the time to try to play major cities within a 200-mile radius of where we’re from. We’ve also recently played some gigs over 500 miles away recently, including DeLand Rock and Metal Festival in Florida. Touring is our next big priority.
Have you toured around the world or mainly in America?
Sarah: We haven’t made it out of the country yet, but we’re looking to do that in the next few years. We’ve started touring a wider area of the United States as well.
What are the band influenced by when it comes to music? Any bands or artists that you look up to?
Jeff: Iron Maiden has sort of always been my number one influence, guiding force, and sense of inspiration when it comes to the “big picture”, but obviously our sound and influences come together across a broad spectrum of heavy rock and metal music. I draw a lot of inspiration from spending time listening to music, watching concert DVDs and documentaries, and going to live shows whenever possible.
I know that MindMaze have entered a few competitions, which competitions and how did they go?
Sarah: The most notable competition type event we did was a contest to open for Motley Crue about a year and a half ago. A few hundred bands from near this area submitted and a local radio station narrowed it down to 3 bands, us being one of them. Motley Crue’s management then selected us to open for them and it was an awesome experience.
Personal with Jeff Teets
For how long have you played the guitar?
Jeff: I’ve been playing for about twelve years now. I played drums before guitar, which I picked up around the age of 11. After about a year, I picked up guitar and played the two side-by-side for about a year, before making the switch.
Do you have any role model that you look up to when it comes to the guitar play?
Jeff: Adrian Smith of Iron Maiden is probably my single biggest influence. I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from his melodic style of playing, phrasing, and songwriting style. I’m also pretty heavily influenced by a few guys who influenced him, like Michael Schenker (UFO) and Gary Moore (Solo, Thin Lizzy), as well as John Sykes (Whitesnake), Neal Schon (Journey), Mark Reale (Riot), and a few more “new school” guys like Gus G (Firewind), John Petrucci (Dream Theater), and Simone Mularoni (DGM). I also really admire some guys who aren’t just guitarists, but more “band leaders”, and also play a role in the songwriting and production aspects of their bands, such as Tom S. Englund (Evergrey), Jim Matheos (Fates Warning), Roy Z (Bruce Dickinson, Halford), etc.
You also play keyboards but do you play any other instruments besides guitar and keyboards?
Jeff: As I mentioned, I started out on drums. I don’t really practice or play often, so I’m rusty, but I can still play. I also have recorded some bass tracks.
Which instrument do you think you handle the best?
Jeff: Guitar, absolutely, haha. I’m ten times more proficient on guitar than anything else.
Where do you find inspiration when you write music/lyrics to the band?
Jeff: Well, I don’t really write lyrics anymore. I contributed lyrics for two songs on Mask of Lies, but those songs were written quite a few years ago. Sarah’s just a much better lyricist than I am, and I don’t ever really feel inspired to write lyrics anymore. Musically, a lot of my riffs and melodies come from just sitting down regularly and noodling around. I’m sure a lot of it is also all of the music I’m listening to at the time subconsciously coming out.
The bio compare you as guitarist with names like Adrian Smith, John Sykes and Michael Schenker. How does that feel?
Jeff: Anytime anyone compares me to guys I really idolize, it’s a huge honor. I can’t stress that enough.
What’s it like to work with you sister?
Jeff: At times, we fight every bit as much like siblings as people might expect, but the flipside to that is that it’s easier to build a bridge and get over our problems. We also seem to have a somewhat intuitive nature when it comes to ideas, and doing things like recording backing vocals together can be a lot easier because the timbre of our voices is naturally somewhat complimentary.
Do you think that the songs essence would feel different if the songs weren’t sung by Sarah?
Jeff: At this point, absolutely. Now that we have two records out there and people really know and care about the material, as well as there being a permanent record of the performances, I think everyone involved is strongly connected to the material and it would be weird to remove them, especially Sarah since she’s the vocalist.
Have you read any reviews of the album?
Sarah: Yeah. I think it’s kind of human nature to at least be curious. We’ve read quite a few reviews, as with Mask of Lies. They’re not all amazing or what you’re hoping to hear, but some of them have good constructive criticism to learn from s well.
Are there any difference in how the band is treated by the native and foreign media and press?
Jeff: I’d say so. I would say that overall, the European press seems to be a lot more harshly critical than a lot of the American-based review sites.
Is the album released worldwide at the moment?
When is it due to be released in America?
Sarah: The album was released in North America on October 28th.
You got four shows booked and you’ve done two of them how was it to meet the fans live?
Sarah: A lot of our shows that we play in places we’ve been before, we see a lot of familiar faces and people we’ve met before, but it’s always great to hang out with fans. Every show we usually do meet some new fans and it’s always a great experience.
The band got a website but not much info can be find on it, why?
Sarah: Our official website was designed to more or less give people the necessary info without any filler or unwanted spam to have to browse through. We have a small bio section, some photos, our shows listed and a store to buy our merchandise as well as links to all our social media and related pages.
Are there any plans on shooting a video to any of the songs soon? If so what song do you have in mind?
Sarah: Yes. We’re planning to shoot a video for the song “Dreamwalker” in early 2015. We successfully funded it via Kickstarter a few months ago, where we offered fans a limited edition EP that will feature some cool tracks, including a few special covers.
Are you currently working on material to the next album? Do you have any idea on when the next MindMaze album can be out in stores?
Jeff: We actually have just recently started working extensively on new material for our eventual third album. We have a few pretty expansive ideas up our sleeves this time around, and I think it’s going to take a lot of time for this material to be written and evolve properly before entering the studio. I think mid 2016 is likely going to be the time frame for the release of our third album. Obviously that’s all very vague for now.
What are the plans for the band during the rest of 2014?
Sarah: We have one more show lined up and then we’re planning on finishing up recording our Dreamwalker EP and work on some more new material for the next album.
What would you like to say to the ones who haven’t discovered the music of MindMaze?
Jeff: To be a bit narcissistic for a minute – I think you’re missing out some highly enjoyable and quality stuff that marries elements of traditional, prog, and power metal with hard rock hooks and also defies many of the female-fronted metal stereotypes.
Could you give the readers three reasons why they should buy BACK FROM THE EDGE?
Jeff: Honestly, most of what I just said above. I think that even those who may have heard our first album and remained skeptical or lukewarm might very well be won over this time if they give it an honest try.
Well, that was all I had for now. Thanks once again for making the interview and I really hope to see you on a stage in Scandinavia really soon. Do you have any final words of wisdom to share with the readers and fans?
Sarah: I just want to say thank you so much for all the support. We can’t wait to make it over there to play for you all.