Fireworks Magazine Online 51 - Interview with DeeExpus

DeeExpus


DeeExpus burst onto the Prog scene in 2008 with the quite wonderfully melodic ‘Half Way Home’. Four years on and not only are DeeExpus back, but they have returned with an album that is going to absolutely delight those who hanker for their music to be a deeply absorbing, involving and uplifting experience. Crammed with glorious melodies, scintillating musicianship and a couple of well known names, ‘King Of Number 33’ is undoubtedly going to be one of the musical highlights of the year and one that Firework’s STEVEN REID was keen to explore further. His guide is DeeExpus’s multi-instrumentalist and songwriter in chief, Andy Ditchfield, with occasional assistance from the band’s singer Tony Wright…

Hi Andy, the debut DeeExpus album ‘Half Way Home’ which was released some four years ago now, made quite an impact on the Prog scene. Were you pleasantly surprised by how well the album was received?

The thing with ‘Half Way…’ was that having played in someone else’s band for years, I wanted to do what I wanted to do, with no restrictions, expectations or rules to work to. I literally decided to record an album of stuff I’d like to listen to. After years of trying not to "sound like the eighties", which I got with my previous album, I succumbed to letting my own style take over and being well into Porcupine Tree at the time, I ended up with a sort of eighties pop/rock sound mixed with a little P.T. influence. Anyway, however you want to term it, I seriously couldn't believe the reviews it got - I’ve not seen one bad one - and was left very pleasantly surprised and eternally grateful to everyone who bought it and gave it a little plug.

Did having a debut album which gained such a universally positive reaction create an element of pressure when it came to starting to think about putting together album number two?

An Element?! I nearly went bonkers with it! There were elements of ‘HWH’ that I wasn't particularly happy with, more from a production and mix point of view, and the primary thing I wanted was a better sounding album. The songs ‘Me And My Downfall, ‘Marty And The Magic Moose’ though it didn't have a name at the time and ‘Maybe September’ were written in 2009 or ‘10 so I only really needed a couple of songs… No pressure there! It was the title track that generated the most difficulty really, a huge personal undertaking but one filled with inspiration from Tony's awesome story and lyrics, which helped no end. Towards the month of May last year, the stress levels were becoming unbearable. I was going to work at my day job, getting home at about 6:30, eating and falling asleep on the couch till about 11pm. I'd then work though the night and off to work again at 8am … rinse and repeat. It really was messing with my sanity in the end, a lot of it down to trying to fulfil expectations and my personal goal to make a better album than, what was perceived to be, such a good debut. I’m also my own worst enemy as I push myself by writing more and more challenging parts, but eventually you get to a point where the river dries up. I’d got to that point around the time Mark Kelly showed up. I was really sick of it by that time.

I’ll come on to talk about Marillion’s Mark Kelly becoming involved with DeeExpus later if I can... So these songs you mentioned went on to become ‘King Of Number 33’, which is not only an excellent album, but one which feels like a far more assured and focused effort than ‘Half Way Home’. What would you put that down to?

Thank you Steven! Assured? I’m not so sure. Everything I do musically, I do to my own personal taste. I love melody, I’m not really a noodler, so I like structured solos and passages, but I’m not a big fan of "filler" songs. I tried to make an album in which every song stands on its own merit as being a good song, not as something just thrown in to make up the minutes. For me, personally, I think Tony and I achieved that with the writing. That’s what we set out to do, so I suppose a little self confidence does play a part in an assured album. Did I answer the question? Ha Ha Ha!!

Almost! So, I have to ask about what you alluded to earlier Andy. How does a newish band, with an admittedly strong reputation, manage to convince someone as respected as Marillion keyboard player Mark Kelly to become so strongly involved with their second album?

Ok, well, there really was no convincing involved. Nagging? A little. Beer? A fair bit. Good Music? Apparently! It started as a bit of a joke between me and Frans Keylard - a Prog DJ for the Dividing Line who is a good mate. We were chatting one night over Skype about the album and how it was coming along, and he says, “So who do you want to guest on the album?” I hadn’t really thought about it to be honest, so as a joke I said to him, “Get me Mark Kelly as I can’t find a keyboard player for love nor money!” So he had a chuckle, as did I and then, just before turning in I said, “and while you’re at it, get me Nik Kershaw!” A couple of weeks later, I’m in the car and the phone rings, the voice on the other end says, “Hi Mark Kelly here” and proceeds to enquire what I was looking for. So we had a natter and he said he was busy with a few bits and pieces and would try and fit it in…Which he did…Eventually. To be honest I gave up on him, I was making slow but sure progress and was really ready to be done with the album so as to get the damn thing released. A couple of months passed and I bumped into him at the Marillion weekend in Holland where I nagged him a bit. This seemed to do the trick and he later got back in touch with the piano part for ‘Maybe September’ that he’d been working on. This turned into a revamping of most of the other keys parts I’d done, which in turn led to working on ‘The King of 33’ song, necessitating a trip to Oxford and the aforementioned Beer. We worked a lot over Skype and used ‘Dropbox’ to send parts back and forth over the following months, then eventually he came up for the weekend. We got him pissed and made him join the band. Simples!

As easy as that? [laughs!] So how much confidence did it give you to have someone as renowned as Mark being so keen to work with DeeExpus?

Music is about taste, not everyone likes the same thing obviously. I think we were fortunate to have music which appealed to Mark. As I mentioned earlier, we were already confident that we had a good album, but having Mark putting his name and reputation behind it reinforced that confidence tenfold.

Not the easiest question to answer Andy, but what is the “special something” that Mark brings to the band?

Dead easy actually! Great craic, enjoyable music and a feeling of a bunch of guys who should have been at school together, as indeed three of us were.

So is he a full-time member of the band?

Yes. We’re about to start firing a couple of ideas back and forth for the third album and he’s as keen as I am to get started. We both have some great idea’s and I’m looking forward to not only working with him on the music writing for the first time, but also in getting Henry [Rogers - drums] involved a little more too. Unfortunately, as some of your readers may be aware, Mark has been diagnosed with a condition called SSHL which is a fairly serious hearing condition. He’s still coming to terms with that and hasn’t assessed fully how this is going to affect his playing live at volume. I’m sure we’ll have a better idea once he gets out with Marillion in a live scenario, but for now we have obtained the services of renowned keyboardist Mike Varty of Credo and Landmarq to fill his shoes live. If you want to know a little more about what Mark is going through at the moment, he’s been writing a blog about it online. [http://markke11y.blogspot.com/]

Yes, I’ve been following Mark progress on his blog. It makes for interesting and concerning reading… I purchased my copy of ‘King Of Number 33’ from Marillion’s Racket Records site, do you hope that having Mark involved will possibly lead to more tie-ups like this, or maybe some tour dates with Marillion?

Firstly, thank you so much for buying the album Steven. We get a lot of requests for promo copies for review and so on but every sale helps us fund what we’re doing and we very much appreciate each and every one! Here’s a strange concept for you; I’ve been a big Marillion fan since ‘Seasons End’ so I have to admit I’m proud of the link and having Mark work with us. Yes, of course I’d love to tour with them and I’m honoured to have our music available through their site. The thing is, I’m AS proud of what we’ve achieved on our own and it always HAS to be about the music for me. We obviously now have a line of communication open to us that we maybe wouldn’t otherwise have had, but nothing is a given. I’m a firm believer that if our live performance is good enough and the music appeals then we’ll get opportunities to present it on their own merit. We’ll see what pans out.

It has been nearly four years between albums, how long has ‘King Of Number 33’ taken to put together?

About nearly 4 years! [laughs]

The title track on the album is a wonderfully intricate tale. Can you tell us who, or what is the ‘King Of Number 33’?

Well this is Tony’s story, so I’ll let him tell it:

Tony Wright - In my youth in the small rural town where I lived there was an eccentric chap known to me and all my mates as “Bus Traveller Man”. This man would travel all day, every day on the local bus service that connected the towns and villages of Weardale. He always sat directly behind the driver, never speaking or acknowledging anyone. He was literally on this bus from its first service run in the early hours until the last service run late at night. Naturally this man became a target of torment and taunting from the local children - I’m ashamed to say myself included - however the total lack of any response from him soon negated our behaviour. We soon accepted that if you got on the bus, Bus Traveller Man would be there too. And then one day he disappeared. The rumour mill amongst us young ‘uns went into overdrive. The tales varied from him stabbing a person, to throttling the driver, strangling passengers and other varied descriptions of how he may have gone, including his being nudged by the driver only to find he’d been dead for three weeks. Whilst looking for inspiration for lyrics, something triggered my subconscious and the memory of Bus Traveller Man came into my thoughts. I speculated about what must have been going through his head, how and why was he fascinated with buses and why was he so calm and at ease with himself all the time. This developed into me thinking that he imagined he was the King of the bus and it was his own personal oasis of calm, his Kingdom of Utopia. I initially wrote a few verses based on this premise which covered a day in his life, however was encouraged by Andy to develop the story more. I duly set to work and broadened the story more to cover his youth, present day and the final day he disappeared. As for how and why he disappeared, that’s for the listener to decide or imagine. I also penned a fictional Psychiatrist report which is included in the album sleeve which aims to give a background to the King and his story, so hopefully it will be useful for the listener to gain more insight into him.

Thanks for that wonderful explanation Tony. So back to you Andy, not only is the song split into six separate, but consecutive parts, but it also clocks in at nearly 27 minutes and has a captivating spoken intro, did you approach this album with the intention of making a “Prog Statement”, or did ‘King Of Number 33’ just evolve into the epic track that it is?

It wasn’t about making a statement, but it was definitely about making a long song. Tony wrote pages of lyrics and they were just too good to waste so I tried to do them justice with a lengthy composition with a lot of light and shade. We decided early on to make this the title track and I set myself a goal to make it longer the Frost* track ‘Milliontown’ for no apparent reason. Other than my undying love for John Mitchell, obviously! Tony is a great writer and when he mentioned the whole lyrical idea to me over a pint, I thought it was genius. Then I read the lyrics and realised that I knew it was! As it isn’t my story, it’s one aspect of the album that I can appreciate as an outsider. I love the lyrics and the story.

I also really like the way song’s theme continues right through to the excellent cover art and band pictures which feature the band waiting at a bus-stop accompanied by a withered looking, but suitably regal King Arthur type. It is a real throwback to the days of vinyl and gatefold sleeves to see a song’s story given such attention to detail in so many different ways - especially when you consider the “psychiatrist’s report” Tony mentioned. Did you consider going the whole Prog-hog and turning the song into a full blown concept album?

This is actually not the first time someone has likened the package to that of the “days of yore” vinyl gatefold sleeve. It wasn’t something that was consciously done. Again, it’s just such a good story with so much to draw from, that everything you need to put a great package together is contained within it. The bus stop pic was again Tony’s idea and we originally thought of asking Robert Rankin - who awesomely wrote Tony and I into his latest Novel ‘The Mechanical Messiah and Other Marvels of the Modern Age’. I am Lord Andrew Ditchfield, owner of the Electric Alhambra and Tony is Lord Tony Spaloney (the King of the Old Baloney) to be the King but that was going to be a logistical nightmare. Fortunately, my dad stepped in and looked absolutely awesome. We had a hoot doing that shoot with him and he loved every minute, to boot!
We considered the whole concept album thing, but since we had three other songs already, it wasn’t really an option. You’re right though, the whole package along with the psychiatrist’s report just ties it all together and gives it what can almost be termed “credibility”.

Now even with all the focus given to the title track, there are also another four excellent songs on ‘King Of...’. My own personal favourite is the wonderful instrumental ‘Marty And The Magic Moose’. I love the way that the opening “music box” section is revisited in so many different ways throughout the song. I’ve got to ask, who is Marty and what makes his Moose so magical?

Ha Ha Ha!! It’s actually not the Moose that’s magical in real life, its Marty. I mentioned earlier that I’d had this instrumental written but it didn’t have a name. It also didn’t originally start with the music box; that came after the name was decided upon. Marty is a legend of the local music scene and has a lighting business providing illumination for many bands up here in the North East. He’s known to everyone as Magic Marty, in fact I don’t even know his surname. It probably is “Magic”. Anyway, I met him when he was providing his services to a local prog cover band - Prognosis - whose singer was a guy by the name of Paul Harris, again known by his nickname, “Moose”. I figured I’d honour their awesomeness by christening the instrumental after them. As ‘Marty And The Magic Moose’ conjured up an image of a children’s bedtime story, the music box followed. Musically, it was an experiment to see what I could do with one riff - In 5/4.

The song begins with a child asking their Dad to read them the story of ‘Marty And The Magic Moose’, whose voice it is that you used for the intro to this song?

The voice was kindly supplied by Mark’s four year old son, Jude. I was planning to have “Daddy” provide some words too, which he actually did, but if they’d have gone in I don’t think he’d have lived it down!

You’ve already mentioned the other well known name on the album that people will recognise, although maybe be slightly surprised to find, that of Nik Kershaw, who is best known for his hits in the 80’s. His vocals on the closing track ‘Memo’ are fantastic and just how I remember them from all those years ago. Why did you want him to be involved?

‘Memo’ is about a long distance relationship after a very brief meeting. It’s a love song and was written from the heart. I was originally going to provide the lead vocal for this, but I simply thought perhaps Nik might like to sing it instead. Fortunately he liked it and very kindly recorded the song for us. With the exception of Henry’s drums, I play all of the instrumentation on the song, although Mark embellished on the piano loop I originally had at the end of the track and made it more of a “part”.

People who aren’t aware of some of Nik’s later, lesser known albums will be surprised to see his name involved with DeeExpus. Do you think that he is a bit of a forgotten, unsung hero of the UK music scene?

If you’ve never heard Nik’s album ‘15 Minutes’, released in 1999, you’re missing some of the finest songwriting and production this country has to offer. It’s a superb album and what got me into his music. Obviously I’d heard the eighties hits and love ‘Wouldn’t It Be Good’, I’d always thought it was a great song, especially the chord progressions. I however was never a “fan” in the eighties. I was into Iron Maiden and Y&T and Def Leppard! Still, I played ‘15 Minutes’ to death, one of only a handful of albums I still have on heavy rotation after 10 years and became a firm fan. I however, think he’s neither forgotten, nor unsung. I think he is a gifted writer, singer and musician who has been a big influence in my own writing and another wonderful and selfless talent who has been gracious enough to lend his name to little old us.

Lyrically the album is extremely diverse, could yourself and Tony give us some insight as to what ‘Me And My Downfall’, and ‘Maybe September’ are all about?

We’d be delighted… I’ll start with ‘Me and My Downfall’. It was written in 2009 and was the first song penned for the new album. Guantanamo Bay was a featured news topic as I was writing the lyrics and they deal with torture and the belief that no matter what you do to me, I’ll still watch your demise when the time comes. The finished track resembles the original demo I did, though with Henry embellishing on the programmed drums and John redoing the bass I’d recorded. It also features a keyboard solo by our old Keyboard Player Marc Jolliffe. Mark Kelly was originally going to play on this, but we ran out of time and I ended up rewriting most of the keyboard parts myself.

Moving on to ‘Maybe September’, there’s a bit of a story attached to that one. I used to drink in a local Pub called the ‘Green Tree’, owned - I believe - by Paul Hopson, a Prog fan. He loved our first album and would always chat to me about song ideas and try to give me inspiration in one form or another. On one occasion I called in and he told me he’d had a dream that I’d written the best song ever. It propelled us to great heights and everyone was talking about this amazing song called ‘Maybe September’. The next day, in light of it being an amusing story, I thought I’d try and write this song and see if I could make his dream come true. I came up with one awful lyric after another, before giving up and passing the task to Tony. I left it with him and it wasn’t until about two weeks later that he handed me a crumpled piece of paper with the mostly finished lyric. Most interestingly is that this was the track that lured Mark Kelly on board. He contributed significantly to the piano part, completely rewriting it and coming up with something totally different around the chord structure I had in place. He also took the solo parts I’d done, revamped them and “progressed” them, whilst not changing them beyond all recognition. Mark also added various organs, strings and choirs and really made an invaluable contribution. Again Henry and John played drums and bass respectively and Gregg Pullen, a classical musician and close friend added the cello.

At this point, I’ll let Tony continue with the story of the lyrics…

Tony - ‘Maybe September’ is a tribute to my father who died in 2009. The song lyrically is in two parts, the first being descriptive of my father and how he and my mother always supported me in what I chose to do in life. Offering guidance and always staying close enough to offer support, emotional or otherwise, when I made mistakes or "flew too close to the sun". The "September" in the song relates to the "September" of life. My Father was first diagnosed with Lung cancer when he was 50 and this, after treatment and surgery, seemed to steel his determination to fit as much living into what time was given to him afterwards. I was approaching adulthood at this point and became much closer to my father as a result of him retiring and him being around more, which enabled me to get to know him better. The second half of the lyric asks whether when I'm in the September of my life, will I be as happy and content as my Father was, and will I see logic in the madness that is life?

So Andy, what’s next for DeeExpus? Do you guys have any plans to get out on the road to promote the new album?

Indeed we do. We’re currently in rehearsals for three dates in Durham, Kingston Upon Thames and Rotherham in April, followed by a trip to the USA for RoSfest 2012 and then a date in Zoetermeer in Holland in October. We also have more gigs pending, which will be announced when and if they’re confirmed. Also we’ve recently signed with Edel/EarMusic which will see ‘King of Number 33’ released worldwide by the time Fireworks is on sale. This will include digital sales on iTunes, Amazon and the like!

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