Heart of Steel: Interviews

Interview with Micheal Romeo of Symphony X
Interview by CrashTest

Hailing from New Jersey, Symphony X have been cranking out high quality neo-classical, progressive metal since 1994 when band leader and guitarist Michael Romeo joined forces with keyboardist Michael Pinnella, bassist Tom Miller, drummer Jason Rullo and vocalist Rod Tyler. Tyler would exit less than a year later and the band would pick up highly talented Russell Allen to fill the void. The move paid off and the band started to really gain momentum, releasing a number of critically acclaimed albums before finally getting a distribution deal in North America within the last couple of years. Michael LePond joined as the bass player in 1998, completing the lineup which has been intact to this day. Now on tour in support of legends Blind Guardian, the band is primed to make their names known in this part of the world. The band released their sixth studio album, excluding a live album and a compilation, THE ODYSSEY, on November 5th. I had the opportunity to speak with Micheal Romeo on November 29th. The following conversation took place just before a gig in Austin, Texas.


How's it going?

Pretty good man.

Good, where are you today?

Texas, somewhere. Austin.

Austin? Alright. Did you guys play a show yesterday? Thanksgiving?

Yeah, last night.

So how was Thanksgiving on the road? Any of you guys married, have families or anything like that?

Yeah, some of us do. It's a little rough, you know. Gotta do what ya gotta do though, right? I called my wife yesterday. Wished everyone a happy Thanksgiving. That's really all you can do.



Exactly. I had to miss a couple myself when I was in college on the other side of the country. So you guys are still hangin' out with Blind Guardian on tour right now?



Well, let me first start off by talking about the new album, THE ODYSSEY. It's a fantastic album and is one that will finish, no doubt, in my personal top 5 of 2002. There are some things that are kind of different on this album, than on previous Symphony X releases. What was your goal when you set out to make this album?

Well, one of the main things was just to make things heavy. Definitely a little more aggressive. Just different from the last album. The last album [V: THE NEW MYTHOLOGY SUITE] was very polished and that kind of thing. It was cool because it was a concept album and it works. But for this one we just wanted to do, kinda go back to the stuff that we grew up with. Like, I grew up with Sabbath, Priest, stuff with a lot of riffs. So that was the thing for this one. We just wanted to definitely have some more guitar riffs. Guitars and vocals up front. Just heavier, a little more aggressive, a little more nuts.



Well, I've noticed that definitely in the guitar department, but also with [vocalist] Russell Allen'svocal approach. It's a lot meatier, a lot heavier. Was that something that you wanted to personally do, or was it sort of a band consensus that you wanted to make a more balls to the wall type of record this time out?

We all kinda agreed, let's do something like that.

Well, I've noticed with a lot of people over at the [Metal Rules] website and with people in my area, you're picking up a lot of newer fans with this one. With the different approach. So, it's good that it's working out. I've been a fan of the band for awhile now, so I can identify with the older and newer sound.

I don't think we changed our direction or anything like that. I think that we're still doing some of the same stuff, some of the things that we do. There's still some progressive parts. It's still very melodic and that kind of thing. But it's definitely a little heavier.



Honestly, I've noticed that it's heavier, but it's still got that Symphony X feel. So when I hear people say, "Now I'm really starting to like Symphony X," then I'm thinking, "What have you been missing?" You know? So, you write most of the music and stuff and Russell writes the lyrics? Is that how it usually goes?

It depends from album to album. Usually me and Michael Pinella [keyboards] pretty much write most of the music. But since this album was more about riffs and guitar-oriented, it was kind of like my job I guess. The band was like, "Dude, there's gotta be some heavy riffs, so go do your thing." So for this one, I pretty much had a lot of work. It's all good. With the lyrics, Russ has a lot of lyrics on this album, but everybody contributed some. Everything, the music, the lyrics. If I come up with a riff or the basic outline of a song, I'll bring it to the guys and we'll go to the rehearsal place and go over some of the ideas, make some changes, that kind of thing. So everyone at least gets to make some input. There's no definite formula though, it changes from album to album.



Some of my favorite tracks are songs like "Wicked", "Accolade II", "King of Terrors", and "The Odyssey." I was at the show at Jaxx last Friday and you guys played "Wicked" and "King of Terrors" I believe. Are these your favorite songs on the album, or was this just you're way of showing that this is what THE ODYSSEY is all about?

Honestly, those are the only ones we had time for. That's it, dude. We had 45 minutes. My favorite track is "The Odyssey", you know.


Exactly. I don't know if you heard it, but when Russell was mentioning [at the show] that there was gonna be one more song, I don't know if you heard it, but I was yelling out for "The Odyssey". [Laughs]

Yeah, we have 45 minutes, so if we played that we'd have like, one more song. [Laughs]



[Laughing] Right, well it was kind of a joke anyway, to get you to play longer than 45 minutes. So anyway, are you guys planning a headlining tour in the US, maybe a little bit later, so that you can play some of the other tracks, and maybe even a long track like "The Odyssey"?

Yeah, definitely. There was some talk of January or February, maybe. But the band was talking about it and it's kind of too close to when we're done with this tour. We have some of the new material rehearsed and some of the old stuff rehearsed for the 45 minute thing. But if we were going to go out and headline for, like 90 minutes or something, we need a lot more time to rehearse. So when we get back we're gonna rehearse and see where we're at. It may not be for a couple of months, but we're definitely gonna do a headlining thing.



So there's a chance you might try "The Odyssey" live?

Oh yeah, we'll definitely do it. But some of the more orchestral parts, we're gonna have to try it with just the five of us. Different arrangements, different things to make it work. We'll have to figure out something, but we will do it.



Well, speaking more of "The Odyssey", it's definitely my favorite Symphony X song. I'm not the type to get into these exceptionally long songs, I've got a short attention span when it comes to that. [Both laugh] But this one, it's just not that way man. It seems like when these other bands try to pull off these 15, 20 minute songs, you either get a lot of repetition, or they throw in some overblown guitar, keys and drum solos, or they just kinda write 3 or 4 songs and then string them together with a sort of a little keyboard segue or something. But this feels like one whole song. It just grabs you.

Yeah, well when we approach songs like that, we're not like, "Oh, let's make sure it's 20 minutes long and then it's done." We're not trying to time it or anything like that. When we take a story like The Odyssey, we try to find the cool parts for the lyrics and then with the music we try to tell the story, so there's a good progression of motion in the song. It's moving along, trying to keep things interesting and the parts changing, but still bring back some of the melodies, so it's one cohesive thing. We definitely put a lot of work into so that it's not a big mess.



So when you're writing this song, are you writing different parts at a time, do you have a kind of structure or an outline that you go in with ahead of time? How does that come about?

Well, usually with a long song like that, or even like with the last album where it's one whole big thing, we try to get the lyrics done, or at least get an outline of what's going to happen in the story. So when we're doing the music we can make sure that it fits, that it's the right kind of feel. When we first said, "Let's do an epic track and let's find something cool to write about" and then we came up with The Odyssey and the band was like, "Yeah, that's cool." Musically you can do so much with it. But the first thing is to get the lyrics and the outline for the story so that when you start writing the music, you make sure it's moving along in the right direction. You know, the right kind of riff is happening at the right time. So you try to do things in order. You have a really cool riff and it represents the cyclops or something. It works good for  us, having the lyrics first, so we make sure the music is not too much or too little.



So you picked the story, wrote the lyrics and then crafted the song to fit the lyrics.

Right. The first night that we decided to do "The Odyssey", we wanted to get some of the orchestral stuff in there. We just knew because of the grandeur of the story that we wanted some of that epic, symphonic stuff. The first night we said, "Let's do this" and the band and everybody was really into it. That night with the orchestral stuff, just because you're so inspired by the idea of doing something like that, that night is was like trying to put together some of the scenes for the orchestral stuff. The overture at the beginning, 90% of that is the actual stuff I wrote that night. You just get that inspiration from like, "Lord of the Rings" and all these big movies with really cool soundtracks.



Well, I was gonna say that, it's kind of like the overture at the beginning makes it feel like you're at the start of a movie and then "bang", you know, it's like it could be a soundtrack almost.

I wanted to kind of go back in time a little bit, and I don't know if you ever get asked about this very much, but I recall a band named Phantom's Opera. Was that not a band you were a part of in the past?

Yeah. It's a different kind of thing than what we're doing now.



A few years back I picked up a demo or something on eBay, and it's been awhile since I listened to it, but I remember thinking it had sort of a Bon Jovi feel to it.

Yeah, well I don't know if I'd go that far. [Laughs]

Really? [Laughing]

It was a little more, it was pretty commercial stuff. It was some guys in high school that I knew and it seemed like a cool thing at the time. [Laughs] They were all good guys and they were into that thing. So for me it was a lot of fun.



Right, there's probably not a lot of people out there who have heard it and can see the huge difference, between like, that band and what you're doing now. Are any of those guys involved in the music business now?

They still have the band together. It's still going. They have a couple albums out now.



Let's go into what might be sort of the evolution of Symphony X, and I guess that would be the next thing that you did, which would be the solo album that you did, THE DARK CHAPTER. This is another one I picked up a few years ago. A mostly instrumental thing. What were you trying to accomplish with this? Was this something you were doing while looking to put a band together and how did this lead into Symphony X?

Well, I was still in that other band at the time. I was still a metalhead, but I was doing that thing with my friends and it was fun, but I was very much into the guitar thing. A lot of bands like Rush and Kansas, Sabbath and Priest, a lot of the heavier stuff. That band wasn't really doing that kind of stuff. We lost our singer and really weren't doing much. I was a little disappointed with the way things were happening. It was more something to do to occupy some time. I had a little eight track or something in my bedroom. A drum machine and the basic stuff for recording. So, just for fun mostly. Goof around with some musical ideas, but I didn't really set out to do anything. In a couple months I recorded some stuff, did a little mixing and it didn't sound too bad. And all the guitar players do stuff like trade tapes. They were like, "You should send this stuff to Mike Varney or to the guitar spotlight column," which is something that they had back in the day. And I did and there was a really good review. That led to some contacts with some different people. Then the label that we went with eventually in Japan, they called my house because they had gotten the tape somehow. They said, "Do you have a band like this," because they liked the music and they wanted something along those lines but with vocals. I was with this other band and we didn't have a singer, it just wasn't happening. So, I said, "Wow, there are people into this kind of thing." So, I started looking for a band. At that time I was jamming with Tom Miller, the old bass player. We started looking for guys. We found Pinella at a music store teaching piano. The original singer, Rod [Tyler], actually auditioned for Phantom's Opera as the singer. We decided to give him a shot. He knew Jason [Rullo], the drummer. It just kind of came together. The first album [SYMPHONY X], I really consider a demo, because everyone had just met and it happened so fast. We tried to record it ourselves, and it kinda sounded like we did. [Laughs]



I'll tell you though man, "Absinthe and Rhue" was the first song I heard from you guys.

"Absinthe and Rhue", huh?

Yeah, and it actually took me until DIVINE WINGS OF TRAGEDY to ... [Singing in the background]

That's Russ. [Both laughing] Russ is doing his "Absinthe and Rhue."

[Laughing] There you go. See man, I was gonna actually say that I'd love to hear you guys play that sometime just so I can hear Russell sing it.

[Russell talking in the background] That's the one that I wanna redo Mike. Tell him!

I'm not kidding! I don't know if you guys ever wanna redo the whole album, but I've always thought that one would be a good one to hear with Russell singing.

We gotta do something. A lot of people ask us that. There are some songs on the first album that are pretty good. I mean, we had just met. Me and Pinnella were just getting to know each other. Everybody was just kind of thrust into this situation. And it was like, we gotta write all these songs, because we've got this label interested in us. But we didn't even have a name at the time. It was just a bunch of guys and there was some stuff going on. Looking back, it worked out cool. Right from the beginning, we spent so much time together. Especially me and Pinnella. So, right now, when we're writing, I know what he's gonna do. If we're writing a song, he's doing a thing and there's a key change coming up, I just know. It's kinda weird now. Like maybe there's this kinda telepathic thing going on. But, it all worked out for the best.



Well, cool. Speaking of Russell now, in my mind he's one of the premier vocalists in metal today. I know you're original singer was Rod Tyler and I was reading on your website this morning, trying to get a feel for some things, and on your website or somewhere else, I read that Rod actually introduced Russell to the band?

Well, the story is kinda funny man. We did the demo, or actually it was the album. And the first thing was with Rod. We sent it off to the label and we didn't hear back right away. I don't know if there was a holiday over there [Japan] or something, but it took a little time for them to get back to us. Rod was, he was like, "Guys, I might have to move on, but I know this other guy Russ and he's OK." [Both laugh] That kind of thing. So he's like, "You might have to get this guy, because I might not be available." So it was like, whatever dude. And then the Japanese did get back to us and it was all cool, until we started the second album. It was kind of apparent that Rod just wasn't the right guy. He's a good guy, but I don't think he was ever into what he was doing. It just wasn't his thing. Especially when we went to the studio and he recorded for a month and he was like, "Guys, I just can't do this." So, whatever.



[Laughing] Well, I don't know what he's doing now, but it seems like his loss. Like he missed the boat big time.

I'm sure he's doing something. Probably something a little more bluesy. So, we were in the studio and we didn't have a singer and we were halfway done with the second record. We were wondering about this Russell guy. And Tom, the bass player, had actually met him somewhere along the line. So he said, "Let's call Russ and see what he's doing." I think Russ was in another band at the time. We had him come down and he was like, "Yeah, I'll give it a shot." But he was like, "I'm not really familiar with this kind of music." So, we just took it from there. Over the years now, he totally knows what we're about. He's a part of what we're about.



Yeah, as I was getting ready for our talk today, I was going through the CDs in the catalogue, and I don't know if "confidence" is the word or just that he's become more a part of the band, but it just seems like with each album he just gets stronger and stronger.  I don't know if "confidence" is the word, but he just keeps getting better and better. It's very noticeable.




A couple months ago I interviewed Arjen Lucassen. [Yeah.] We were talking about his new album, the Star One project that Russell appeared on, and he mentioned that you two knew each other.

Yeah, yeah.

OK, so you're an Ayreon fan and have you two ever worked together?

Yeah, I had known about some of Ayreon's stuff, just from friends and stuff. I always thought he was a very talented guy. I guess he got in touch with one of our friends and said that he wanted me and Russ to work together on this song. It was something fast on THE UNIVERSAL MIGRATOR. What the hell was that song? Um, "Dawn of a Million Souls" was what it was. And he was like, "I'd like you guys to jam on this tune." And I was like, this guy is a great musician. So that was the first time we picked up on each other. So for this new thing [SPACE METAL], he got Russ to sing on a lot of the songs. It's always cool to jam with some other guys.



Well, those kind of things can be hit and miss, but with the Ayreon and Star One things, it was definitely hit. Really good stuff.

Alright, so let me ask you something. For many years, I was shelling out the big bucks, being here in the States, shelling out the big bucks to get Symphony X albums. What took so damn long for you guys to get a distribution deal in the States? You were always big in Japan. By the way, I'm really glad that you've finally got it.

In the beginning, with the Japanese, the original label, Zero, they pretty much owned the early stuff. I don't know why. I don't actually understand the whole thing and how that goes down. I don't know if they actually tried to work out distribution here, whether they couldn't get anything that was really worthwhile. It was just weird, because we were always like, it's cool that the album is out in Japan and it's doing well, but what about everywhere else. I'm sure they had some offers at the time and maybe they didn't think it was good enough. I remember one time I called there and I said, "Did we get some kind of distribution deal in the States and can we get something going on?" And they told me they got some offers, but they were too low. They were like, "No, no, Symphony X not a garage band." [Both laugh.] Back then, as far as the business stuff goes, I didn't know too much back then. As time went on, the first two albums were only in Japan. Then Europe began to pick up and we were like, at least something else is happening now. So there's not really one reason, just a lot of messy things.



I don't understand much about the business, but it just always seemed so strange to me that a great band like you guys, everybody had to buy an import in North America. Yet there are dozens and dozens of bands who aren't at Symphony X's level and you could pick 'em up right down the road.

There could be a lot of different reasons. Like maybe the label wanted to have total control over everything that we had. Anyone who was buying the CD, they were getting it from them. Maybe that was it or maybe they thought none of the offers were good enough. So many things, who knows? It was always an issue, but it eventually got sorted out. It's all good now. I think now we're doing pretty good, as far as people being able to get the CDs.



Yeah, exactly. I went down to the ProgPower festival in Atlanta a couple weeks ago and I noticed that InsideOut America was pushing you guys big time. So that's good to see.

Yeah, that's good to hear.

Your shirts and stuff were right up there, along with a couple other bands they were really hitting hard with. Really cool to see that. I don't want to take up too much more of your time, but is there a particular album in the catalogue that you maybe see as your proudest work or your defining moment, or are they each kind of like your children and you look at them all the same?

Yeah, I mean, each album we try to do something a little bit different. It's so hard to compare one against the other. Like with THE ODYSSEY, it's probably my favorite album and "The Odyssey" is probably my favorite song. But if I look at, like TWILIGHT IN OLYMPUS, I don't think it's our strongest album, but I think it has some of our strongest songs. Like "Smoke and Mirrors" and "Church of the Machine". Even "Through the Looking Glass" was one of my all time favorites for a long time. So, each album has something that I'm really proud of. Even our last album, I thought it was really good with this whole concept thing. "The Communion and the Oracle" and "Rediscovery", those longer kinds of tracks, that's the stuff I like.



Just to kind of wrap things up here. Is there any plans for you guys to do, like, a DVD?

It's something that we've talked about, but we just wanna wait until the time is right. Until we're playing somewhere where it's gonna be a quality thing. Where we're not playing for 45 minutes, you know what I'm saying? Where we get to do a lot of the material. Old and new material. Maybe do a couple different shows. Pick the best stuff and do something that's a little more special. When we did the live album [LIVE ON THE EDGE OF FOREVER] it was the same thing. Just wanted to get something where the crowd reaction was good and it was at the bigger venues. Good performances from the band. Try to get a lot of good songs that we do. So, we recorded a bunch of different nights and that kind of thing. So with the live album there were a bunch of really good songs. A lot of good performances. With the DVD we wanna do the same kind of thing. Not just do something to have it, but do something that really has some quality to it.



Well, Michael, I really appreciate your time man. I wish you the best of luck down in Texas and hope you can put something together to headline through the States.

Alright, thanks a lot.

Official website: www.symphonyx.com


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