Heart of Steel: Interviews

Interview by Anders Sandvall

Tim Donahue recently released a new album called Madmen & Sinners which includes lead vocalist James LaBrie (Dream Theater). I asked him about his musical direction, his past history, and his work with James LaBrie.

Thanks to Frontiers Records for the promo pictures.
Thanks to Stefan at Atenzia records for the help with the interview.

Would you please tell us a bit about your musical background?

I'm a long time recording artist, most of my albums have been for a major record label in Japan and Frontiers records in Europe. Throughout my career, I've released a large amount of music, from fusion to jazz to heavy rock and a movie soundtrack. MADMEN & SINNERS is my 7th solo album.



You have released 6 albums before this new one, what are the music styles on those albums and are those discs available today?

It may be hard to believe, but I sound like a different artist on each release. Each of my albums is very different. My earlier albums are quiet, in a spacey jazz kinda vein. But gradually each album became louder, so by the time I did VOICES IN THE WIND (1997) with Eddie Kramer and Paul Rodgers, my music had become heavy, fusion-oriented rock. INTO THE LIGHT was my next album, which was louder and heavier still. MADMEN & SINNERS is the latest album in this evolution.



Have you been a member in any band before this or have you always been a solo artist?

I've always been a solo artist, even though I've gotten offers from bands in the past. Basically this is because I want to do my music, the way I want to do it. I'm open to joining a band, but if the band does not do my music exclusively, then the money issue has to be right in order to justify my commitment.



When did you decide to do Madmen & Sinners and why did you do it?

I started composing MADMEN in 2001, and made this album simply because this is the music I love- this is what I want to hear.



How long has it taken to write this album?

Even though I started writing in 2001, a lot of the initial music did not go on the album. As I composed, the album concept changed, so I ended up writing in a slightly different direction around January of 2002. It took another year to finish the songwriting.

I take the time and effort to keep writing a piece until it hits me. I don't like to rely on over-playing and over-arranging to make a song sound great. The song must hit me at the songwriting stage. This way it's a true, heartfelt composition.


Had you Mr. LaBrie in mind when you wrote the album?

Yes, from the start I wrote with James' vocals in mind.



Is Madmen & Sinners a project or a band?

Let's not use the word "project". "Project" sounds too temporary and unimportant. MADMEN & SINNERS is a Tim Donahue solo album, like a Satriani or Malmsteen album.



Have you written all of the music and lyrics on the album by yourself? Or did you do it together with someone?

Yes, I wrote the music, lyrics, everything.



Are the lyrics about anything special? Why are some of the songs so long?

MADMEN & SINNERS is based on the insanity of modern society and religious hypocrisy. Characters within the music deal with various sides of this concept. The insanity of nuclear war is discussed, and cynical references to religious extremism can be found throughout.

Understanding the lyrics is important to understanding the music. Sorry to say, but MADMEN & SINNERS will only appeal to sophisticated listeners.

I really don't think the MADMEN songs are long at all. My favorite music is 70's prog rock, where some of the songs are over 20 minutes long. So to me, the MADMEN tracks are quite normal in terms of length. On this subject, I never think about song length when I write music. A song is finished when it's finished. Sometimes a track may be 3 minutes, other times it may be 15 minutes. It depends on what I want to get across. I'm fortunate because my record labels have been very supportive of my musical sense. They have never said anything about the length of my tracks.



How did you get in touch with Mr. LaBrie? Did you know him from before? Did you have any demos ready to show him in order to convince him to sing on your album?

James and I were introduced by a music journalist / friend of ours who heard the first MADMEN demo. The first demo was very rough, but James was open to the music and we had a nice exchange of ideas. Remember, most of the music I initially wrote was not even used on the current album. The music on the album was written after I met James.

As I wrote the MADMEN music, I sent demo updates to James every month or so. This meant he received the finished songwriting well before we went into the studio. Working with James was a very positive experience. He sang great, and I think we both learned a lot.



What was your thought with this album? The info note says that you wanted to make a more epic, bombastic and more technical album than Mr. LaBrie's ever done in Dream Theater? Is that correct? Do you think you have succeeded with that?

Yes, that's partly true- I certainly wanted to make a bombastic album, but I didn't want it to be too technical. I was careful to give MADMEN & SINNERS the balance I prefer. In my opinion, a lot of prog metal bands these days focus too much on technicality. Sorry, but for me, most of this music goes in one ear and out the other! There is so much overplaying, and the compositions are generally weak. Overplaying may be entertaining to some people, but that's not a level of music that will stand the test of time, in my view. I'm very satisfied with the way MADMEN turned out. Fans can be sure the album is 100% Tim Donahue.



The info note describes the music on the album as progressive metal, how would you describe the music?

I agree with that description.



How did the drummer Mike Mangini end up in Madmen & Sinners?

Mike played on James' Mullmuzzler albums, and we both felt Mike would be a good choice for MADMEN. James's put Mike and me in touch, and the rest is in the music.



What do you think of LaBrie's performance on the album?

You know, my music is not very easy to sing. But James got inside the lyrics and brought the music to life. What more could I ask of a vocalist? He did a great job.



You're playing guitar, bass and keyboard. What do you think of your performance on the album?

Well, I spend a lot of time to make each part perfect. So when the album was completed, I was satisfied with the performances. This is one of the benefits of playing most of the instruments myself. The problem is, it takes a long time to record an album this way. But in the end, there's nothing I would change.



How is it to produce yourself?

Good question. In many ways, I like producing myself because I have a strong vision of the music, and don't need to fight with anyone else. Hey, I'm always open to opinion, but many times engineers think they are producers (when they're NOT) and show a lot of disrespect to the artist/producer by being assholes. So, I engineer the fucking thing myself and get it RIGHT.

On the other hand, I loved working with Eddie Kramer, a legendary producer who respected me as much as I respect him. We had such rapport for each other; even after 3 months in the studio our sessions remained exciting and creative.

That said, I think it's better to use an outside producer whenever possible. But only if the producer shares the same vision for the album and respect for the artist. If that's not the case, then artists should produce themselves.



You have recorded each of your parts in different studios, how was that? Did everything go well? Did Mike and Mr. LaBrie had any demos that you had made to play after?

There are always problems to overcome in any recording situation. So outside of the issues that normally arise, things went pretty smoothly at the various studios. After I recorded James and Mike's parts, I returned to my studio to record the rest of the album and put it all together. But in the summer of 2003, some serious problems arose that almost caused me to lose the whole album. This continued for 3 months, and I wasn't sure if I had to re-record everything all over again.

Needless to say, it was a sleepless summer! But everything worked out OK and I was able to keep most of the master recordings.



How long did the recordings take?

The recording sessions went off and on for 1 year. As I mentioned, there were some serious problems, so I estimate total recording time to be 7 months.



Is this the heaviest thing you made so far?

Yes, by far.



Who did the cover? I think it captures the music really well.

Thank you- I agree. The cover was done by Hugues LaFlamme, a graphics artist in Montreal who does artwork for BW&BK Magazine. The inner pages were done by Dino Gilley of Lucidic Studios in the USA.



How does the co-operation with your company go? Have you always been on Frontiers? 

I'm fortunate to have been signed to good labels for the past 10 years straight. I first signed to Nippon Crown, a major label in Japan, releasing 4 albums. During that time I signed with Frontiers for my INTO THE LIGHT album. Now, EMI is the label for MADMEN & SINNERS in Japan and Frontiers is handling the album in Europe and America.

Frontiers Records has been a great label. Frontiers licensed the MADMEN album long before it was recorded- not many labels will do that these days. They want to hear the finished product before committing to anything. But Frontiers supported my work and trusted me to come up with a killer album, the way I wanted to make it. I appreciate this support.

Frontiers also doing an excellent job with promotion, so I'm really busy these days with that. What more can an artist want from their label?



How has the response been from the press? Have you read any reviews?

I don't mean to exaggerate, but the response to MADMEN & SINNERS has been greater than I ever expected! The reviews have been fantastic, and the album is doing very well in sales. We've recently seen the MADMEN album at the top of a lot of sales charts, this is great! But can you believe the album ranks at the top of a lot of JAZZ charts too? I don't know how it got categorized as jazz, but this is pretty amusing, isn't it? It's even more amusing to know that the album reached #1 on some of those jazz charts.



How has the respond been from the fans?

I'm trying to keep up with all the interviews and email from around the world. It's amazing- I thank everyone for enjoying this album.



Are there any plans on going out on tour?

Actually, James & I are currently discussing this with EMI in Japan. We'd like to go out on an acoustic MADMEN tour, but our schedules are getting harder to coordinate. I've got fretless guitar clinics coming up and James is on tour with Dream Theater for most of this year. But I'll be making a solo DVD with music from the album, and this should be available in Japan in the Autumn. Fans can always get the latest MADMEN news by logging onto: www.timdonahue.net



You are described as a demon bass player in the info provided, how do you comment that?

I don't know if I'm a "demon" bass player…but I'm a bassist at heart. I love playing bass.



Are there any plans on doing a follow up to this disc?

Yes indeed - MADMEN 2 is being born as we speak.



What are the next things you have planned to do? Any new project or band? What are your plans for the rest of 2004?

I've started writing MADMEN 2, and it's clear that it will be heavier and more melodic than the current MADMEN album. I'm really inspired to do this new album. However, I wanted to get out and perform live after MADMEN & SINNERS was released. So I'm happy to report my new agent/rep in Europe, Moodbully Management www.moodbully.com is working to get me over to Europe for live dates & TD clinics.



Are there anything you would like to say to the readers of Metal-Rules.com?

Thank you to everyone for your support of MADMEN & SINNERS. See you soon!



Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions.

My pleasure Anders!

Labels: www.frontiers.it  and www.atenzia.com

Official Website: www.timdonahue.net