Imagine a distant future when space travel is the norm, and you’ve been sent on a solo mission. Trouble ensues, and your craft crashes onto a deserted planet. Alone, you wander with thoughts of your life, your homeland, your loved ones, with no means to communicate. The only “sounds” you hear are your own thoughts and the bank of songs stored on a portable media player. As loneliness overtakes you, what music do you turn to? What songs resonate? This is the germ of a plot created by science fiction author and part-time keyboardist Mack Maloney, who took this concept – and with the help of musical friends Rich Kennedy (guitarist) and Mark Poulin (vocalist/guitarist/bassist/drummer) – recorded a group of songs that would reflect a space traveler’s psyche under such conditions. The resulting Sky Club album is, perhaps, the first effort of its kind – a concept album consisting almost entirely of cover songs. Taking compositions from artists including The Who, Journey, Cream, Toad The Wet Sprocket and Mike & The Mechanics, Maloney and friends put a distinctive twist on tunes, “reconstructing” them in a way that a far-off race of “musical archaeologists” might do. ClassicRockMusicBlog.com spoke with Maloney about Sky Club and how this unusual album came to be.
Tell me a little bit about your keyboard background.
My keyboard background? I’ve been playing maybe about 20 years, but I don’t have the musician gene. I’ll, say that right up front. And I’m not like a musician in the same sense of the word as the other guys in the band. All of those other guys, they’ve been out playing gigs every night of the week for . . . all their lives, it seems like. And, it shows on the CD. I play the synths, but you know, these days who can’t? I just listen to a lot of music – a lot of progressive music – and I know what I like as far as the keyboards and a lot of songs. So I just try to kind of pick up the good part that’s not going to interfere with anything else that’s going on in the song. And, and in fact, when we were mixing it, and I said to Chris Billias, who plays piano on the CD and is also our producer, I told him when it comes to the synth, I want them to be there but not be there. I don’t want them to interfere with anything else going on, and I think that in the end it’s worked out the way we wanted it to work out.
So you’re there to sort of provide more of a kind of a texture and an atmosphere, to sort of wrap the package up?
Yes, exactly, just to kinda add the tone to it. I do have a couple interesting keyboards, though. I have a Korg Triton, which it seems everyone has, and that’s like the greatest keyboard there is. But we also use a Yamaha , like what they would call a personal keyboard. You know one of those keyboards where there’s 300 songs already loaded in – “Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey?” and all of those songs. And it just has two or three sounds that are just really, really good, especially strings. And, for whatever reason, we’ll use that, and put it through the ears at the recording studio. It just sounded right, so a lot of the playing on the CD is actually from this hundred dollar keyboard, and a little bit of it is from this, you know, four thousand dollar Korg. Also, in terms of the demos, we used a Mirage Ensoniq. Ever hear of those?
I bought it used in the ’80s, okay, and it loads with floppy discs.
And, once again, it just sends this really unique sound that is like if you go back and listen to a lot of the kind of early disco songs, you hear a lot of Mirage Ensoniqs on those songs. And again, it just has some unique sounds, and it just seemed to fit. So I have an interesting rig of keyboards.
Well here’s a stupid question. I would say that Yamaha was not built really as a recording instrument. How does that work in the studio?
Well, it does have Midi and stuff like that, and, uh, we just pull right into the board. And you put effects and that kind of stuff on it, but it was just a sound that I liked from it is that it’s, it’s almost mellotronic. But it’s a little smoother, and in a mellotron you’re always counting for the eight seconds to come up. But it has the mellotron sound. It’s a little – I don’t want to use the word “sweeter” – but it’s just a little more sonic. I don’t know – it just sounded good to us, so we used it a lot on the CD.
Sky Club is an unusual album. It’s sort of a combination of a concept album story, but it’s told through primarily cover songs.
We did an interview the other day and someone called it the first covers concept album, and it probably is.
Yeah. It’s a different approach, and I’m just wondering how much thought went into the song selection. Were you looking for a specific type of sound for the CD to mirror the concept of the story behind it?
Well it took a while for the whole idea of the CD to evolve. Mark Poulin, who, does all the singing, all the bass, all the drums, and about eighty percent of the guitar – he and I are very good friends, and we’ve done other music projects together. But it was actually one night when I was writing. I was writing, and I usually listen to music through headphones, as I write – just first draft stuff where you’re just basically puttin’ words on paper. So I usually listen to Yes or Patrick Moraz or somebody, and I just get this idea: Wouldn’t it be interesting to make a soundtrack for a book? Movies have sound tracks, TV shows have soundtracks, you know, how about a soundtrack for a book? I think it just came to me. Doing it for a book would be a huge project, but hey, maybe a soundtrack to a short story? So I had that idea, and then it was like, “What short story would it be?” And then again, one night I was just working and somehow I came upon something on the story about Otzi – the guy who they found in the ice up in the Alps there a few years ago. The ice man. Ever hear of that guy?
When they dug him up he was still dressed in the way he dressed – he was five thousand years old. He had the clothes that he wore back then, he had the boots, he had a knife on him, he had bows and arrows and jewelry and stuff. And he was perfectly preserved, and from finding that guy, now they know so much about how people lived five thousand years ago. I had heard about him, but I had not read a whole lot about him. But then I read, and then, once again, I just . . . I’m sitting there saying, “How about if the guy’s on the planet and the same thing happens to him . . . and he’s found millions of years later and people know what his life was like, well what would he have had with him? So that goes on to the old question, “If you’re on a deserted island, what songs would you want [with you]?”
I can’t explain it. It’s just that it all came together, and I thought, “How about a guy on a planet? He’s lost on the planet – the only thing he has is his music and his Ipod. They find the Ipod after millions of years; they try to reconstruct the music and they do reconstruct the music, so it’s the song that he’s been listening to, but not exactly what he’s been listening to, they had to reconstruct it, and so on. So, in a way, we’re the aliens but the end of the aliens, and that’s why these are the songs he listened to all these times. All this time that he was alone, and each song kinda has something to do with the fact that he’s by himself, he’s not gonna go back to earth, he misses his wife and so on and so forth. So it just makes sense that those are the songs that he would be listening to all that time alone. So if you put all that into like a blender and hit the button, that’s how the CD came up.
Going back to the sound you were after . . . For lack of a better word, were you trying to capture sort of a futuristic sci-fi sound. I hate to use the word sterile, but . . .
Right. On the liner notes it says recorded in Sci-fi Hi-fi, and that’s just something we kind of made up, you know. We did all the songs at a studio here. We actually live in Newburyport, Mass., which is about 40 miles north of Boston. We went to a studio here, and then we went down to Bristol Recording Studios in Boston – in fact, I’m going down there later today – that’s a pretty famous studio. When we met our producer, Chris Billias, he said, “How do you want it to sound?” So what I did is I brought in a bunch of The Ventures. And then also, there was a band from England in the early ’60s called The Tornados, they had a song called “Telstar.” And it was the first number one song in the U.S. by a British group before The Beatles, and then like the next year The Beatles came out. But, it was kind of like, you know, pre-Beatles surf/space, 1950’s soundtrack – that kind of stuff – and we played this music for Chris. He just said, I got it, I understand. So he kind of knew how we wanted things to sound, and then at the same time we were always kind of looking – Mark and I had this idea once where we wanted to take a bunch of Motown songs and do them as progressive rock songs. As strange as that might sound, and we were going to call it All Heart and No Soul, because it’s kind of like you’re ripping the soul out of Motown songs, you know. And we actually tried it, with a song called “Strawberry Letter 23” by The Brothers Johnson. Remember that song?
And we tried it, and it was a mess. It was – we just totally destroyed this song, and it was just like, “Oh man, this probably isn’t going to work.” But in those sessions we also did the first song for the CD, and so we said, “Well you know, that one doesn’t sound too bad,” so we kind of scrapped the idea of doing Motown songs as prog music and we said why don’t we try this, and all this was kind of all evolving at the same time, where we were coming up with the idea for the short story and so on and so forth. But we tried to make it sound different, yet the same. That’s kind of like a rule of thumb in writing books – you want old things to seem new and new things to seem comfortable, you know. And we were feeling our way through the dark for a good amount of time, too, you know, it wasn’t like we had this huge master plan all written down. It was a discovery process.
So, would “Star Surfing 1962” be your homage to The Tornados?
Yeah, and to Dick Dale and those guys – you know the surf guys. Actually, that came about – going back to the Yamaha where you have all these kind of preset patches. You can just set it up and you hit a key, and it will continuously play F-sharp or something in either a rock mode or a waltz mode or that kind of stuff.
And there was just this really cool rock mode that – there’s literally hundreds of modes you can use, and so I was just fooling around with the chords of that, and Mike says, “Hey, that’s kind of cool.” And he started playing, you know, this kind of Dick Dale surf guitar over it. And then so we recorded that, and then Amadee [Castenell], the sax player, he heard it and he starts playing, so that’s where we said, “Well, looks like the space man was a surfer when he was a kid because you gotta put this on there.” That’s actually the favorite song of a lot of people.
And one of the originals.
Speaking of Amadee, I was really impressed with the horn performances across the album. Tell me a little bit about his background.
The way we met him was, once we were at the demo studio here in Newburyport, and I had just put a synth saxophone part on one of the songs – just a little, just a couple measures – and the engineer said, “Do you want to put a real sax on that, ‘cause I think I know a guy who would do it?” So we never thought in a million years of putting horns on the CD at that point, but we said hey, why not, you know. So, a week later, in walks Amadee. And it turns out that he’s played – he had just got off the road with Paul McCartney, he was in Elvis Costello’s band, he’s played for Fats Domino, The Eagles, Bonnie Rait, Neville Brothers - it just went on and on … Paul Simon, and we’re like immediately in awe of this guy, and he just happened to know the engineer. But he just really got into it – he can play all kinds of music anyways – but he got into it, and he wound up playing on like six or seven of the songs, and he’s a really good guy to hang out with. It’s really a lot of fun when he’s around, and we got to know him pretty well, and, like I said, we’re still in awe of him, cause he’s a fantastic sax player. He’ll usually do four or five takes, and the only problem is going through everything and trying to pick out the best ones because they’re all really just right on the money. So, when he joined us – when he joined the project – the CD really went up to a whole new level, and we’re really lucky that he became part of it.
How did that work with him? Did he know the songs? Did you just give him some chord charts?
This was kind of a learning experience for us, too, you know, because where Mark is a working musician and someone who can improv on anything because he’s also a guitar player and a drummer… and I have limited musical experience. Amadee is like light years ahead of us, but the first time he came in there were specific things I wanted him to do. I had sent him the songs, but then I realized that people in his position, they don’t listen to the songs. They come in and they play. They hear the song for the first time, and they play it how they feel. And I can’t relate to that, really, but people on his level, that’s how they do it. So, the first session we sat down and I had my trusty Yamaha, and I said, you know, such and such plays it like this, and I would play the notes on the keyboard and, boom, he would do it. And then I’d say, can you play it like this? And then he was basically mimicking exactly what I was playing, but there was just this kind of power and soul to it that … that there was no way I could do it that way. So we learned that that’s how he did it – that a lot of it just – I mean you always hear that term, soul music, but it really does come from within these guys, you know? It just comes out. And so the second song we did was the surf song, and that one we just turned on and said – we knew, we knew at that point. Just play it from – I was in the recording booth – and he’d listen to it halfway through, and then he’d say, OK, start it again, and boom, and he starts playing, and a lot of that song is actually him playing his first take. He just had it in him, and it’s just great to see. It’s great to see in person – to see someone with such great musical ability to do some stuff like that, but of course that’s why he’s a favorite of all these bands that he tours with, because he’s such a quick learner; he’s such an easy person to work with: you know, “OK, here you go. play this.” Boom!
It doesn’t sound there’s a whole lot left for him to do out there.
Yeah, he has his own solo album, and I think he’s going to be working on another one soon. He’s in Turkey this month, and the Middle East and places doing a tour – really interesting guy.
One of the things that I think is really cool about this CD package is the short story and the artwork. How much of that was your input, as far as the style and the theme you were looking for?
Well, what we did was … I’m a big science fiction fan, but not just in books but I love, like, old science fiction movies and, you know, Flash Gordon and all that kind of stuff. And so I go on Ebay a lot and buy old sci-fi magazines from the ’30s and ’40s, and I was doing this all at this time when the idea for the CD was coming together, so when I thought we’re going to do this story, we’re going to do it visually, the original idea was to put it on the web site and when people would buy the CD they would go to a website to see this. Then when we went to Voiceprint Records and Rob Ayling, the guy who runs the label, and he said, “No no. We have to make this a comic book, as he put it, that we put it in right with the CD,” which is great because there’s not many record companies that do this kind of stuff anymore. I was thinking of the inspiration for this, because it is kind of like throwback science fiction, “Let’s look at these magazine covers, and let’s look at the way that they depicted someone, someone in that situation.” So I just went through – I went through the magazines I have, but I also bought a DVD that had something like – I think there’s like 4,000 covers and drawings and illustrations of sci-fi stuff from the magazines and book covers from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. And I just went through all of those and found ones that looked like they were something that you could plug into our story, which is like a total of 16 panels. And then I gave them to the artist – his name is Mike Dominic (www.paladinfreelance.com). He lives up in Nova Scotia, and we found him on Craigslist because he was doing kind of like comic book stuff. And I said to him, “Here’s what this should look like and here’s what this should look like,” and he got it right away, and he did about ninety percent of those drawings, and people love the drawings. People love that booklet.
Yeah, everything about it – the cover, front and back – is very cool. It’s sort of a combination of sci-fi and Roger Dean wrapped up into one.
Yeah. Roger Dean is obviously a big influence for me and I had mentioned that to Mike. We went through two or three different versions of that cover, but the one that we finally came up with is great. And then on the back, you know, because like I say, we were so in awe of Amadee we said we have to put him in there somewhere, and that’s why we put him up on the cliff playing the sax.
That is very cool. You had mentioned Voiceprint, and I’ve had some correspondence back and forth over the years with Rob – it just seems like a such a great label for so many bands that, I don’t know, kinda like your outfit and, you know, everybody else, from Anthony Phillips to Rick Wakeman – you name it, it just seems like all the guy does it put out awesome stuff. How did you hook up with him?
Well, I knew him because he was – he approached Patrick Moraz, my friend, about four years ago to re-release a lot of his solo stuff. Patrick had been recording for so long, he had been on so many different record labels, which, in turn, had been bought by other record labels and so on and so forth that people had been asking us for years when is Patrick going to put out his back catalog. And I remember saying to so many people there’s not enough lawyers in the world to come to this kind of an agreement. But somehow Rob was able to cut through – this is what he does very well – he was able to cut through all that stuff and get people to agree to do these things. So, anyway, he came out with 14 of Patrick’s CDs that – catalog CDs – stuff that hadn’t been out there in years, and when Patrick had mentioned to him that I had been doing his publicity for a while, Rob said, “Do you want to do the publicity tour for Patrick’s CDs?” I said sure. So we did that, and that was very successful. And then I got to do other CDs for Voiceprint. One of them is Matt Malley, who is one of the founding members of Counting Crows … then the guys in Charlie – Julian Colbeck – you know, who plays with a lot of the guys from Yes and Terry Thomas, who is a really famous producer over there. He’s produced Aerosmith and different bands like that. So Rob and I had this kind of working experience together; in the meantime we had a deal another record label – they signed us up for this deal, and then we never heard from them. I guess that’s a common story, that record companies will sign you up and then it’s like – it’s not like they drop you but it’s just like, kind of like you’re on your own or whatever – I don’t know what it was. But we waited around for a long time, and finally we had to just say, “You know, we have to do something else,” and then I asked Rob if he’s interested. We met in New York, last December – and the funny story is that that I wanted him to hear the CD. The CD was finished by this point, and I wanted him to hear it under the best conditions possible, so we live near an outlet store that has a Bose Radio store in it. So I got one of those Bose radios for like five hundred bucks – they have this that tremendous sound – and I lugged that down to New York City [and set it up] in a little conference room in a hotel. Rob had just got off the plane from England. I had set up our mike, and I’m ready to go into this pitch, a pitch where I’m going to explain every song for him. So he put on the headphones, I played about – he knew what the idea was – I played about half of the first song, The Who song “Don’t Let Go The Coat.” He took off the headphones and he says, “OK, let’s do it.” [laughs] Like, thirty seconds.
And he says, “I love it. The songs sound professional. I can tell they’re done well. I love the drawings. I’ll take the CD with me and listen to it when I fly back to the U.K.” But he says, “OK, let’s do it.” That was it. So, it might have been the quickest signing in the history of, you know, albums. Like I said, I gave him the CD, and there were a few things we had to just finish up on some of the production and some of the drawings, but basically that was it, that was how we got signed to Voiceprint. And that’s the kind of guy he is. We went out to dinner afterward, and he’s a really interesting guy. He’s also a rock photographer, and he takes a lot of pictures with different concerts and stuff. He just took pictures of this Jon Anderson/Rick Wakeman tour that just started. And he just has all these artists that people might not ever hear again if it wasn’t for him. And he’s just open to any ideas. He’s really a good guy, very interesting guy, and they’ve been really good to us. They’ve supported us in everything we wanted to do. So he’s a really good guy to know.
Yeah, it just seems like one of the last few labels that are still devoted to music.
It all started when he was an electrical engineer, and he was a fan of that band Gong, from Australia. And he spoke to them and said, “How come I can’t buy any of your albums in the U.K.?” And they wrote back, “Well why don’t you distribute them for us?” And that’s how he started, and now he has like three hundred people on his label, and he’s always on an airplane. That’s another thing about him is that he is always traveling – he is literally always traveling. When I talk to him, he can be in London, he can be in California, he can be down in South America, he can be – once I had to get a hold of him and he was like up in the Arctic Circle. He just loves music and he loves taking pictures, and … and he’s a good guy. I mean we really … don’t have a bad word to say about him, and we trust him. He’s honest, so he is kind of a rarity.
You were a coproducer of this project, and I’m wondering what you might have learned or did you enjoy doing it?
I enjoyed doing it a lot. I enjoyed doing it more than I do writing books. The thing is that – first of all, the … it’s more immediate than doing a book. When you write a book, it takes six months to write it, and then you send it in to them and then it come bounces back to you two or three times to edit and so on and so forth, and once you finally get it and then you send it back to them, and it still doesn’t come out for like another six months, so what you’re doing takes about a year to actually see the finished product. When you’re doing music, when you leave the studio that day, you have a burned copy and you’re listening to it minutes later. And that’s cool. That I really like, and also, the technology these days you can do, like, all kinds – all sorts of stuff you couldn’t back then – when The Beatles put Sgt. Pepper together on a four track and they were just trying to push the envelope – when you see what is available now in recording studios that is all really just because of that, because of The Beatles and their philosophy. It’s just great. It’s fun, it’s inventive, it’s creative and it just leads, every idea just seems to lead to two or three more ideas – constantly like a domino effect, and it’s a lot of fun. I would recommend it to anyone who was able to do it. It’s really just a lot of fun.
I envy you the opportunity to do that and especially a dual project like this, bringing both sides of what you do into one. I’m trying to think of somebody else who’s done something like that.
Yeah, I don’t know. I know there’s a band called Hawkwind and they collaborate with, uh, that writer – I can’t think of his name right now …
Yeah. Michael Moorcock.
But it’s a little bit different. I think that when we set out to do it, we weren’t setting out to do it this way, but like I said before, we were probably the first covers concept album, and as someone else said, most progressive music is original, and this is kind of like, non-original progressive music. So, we weren’t trying to break any barriers or anything like that, but I think without us even knowing it, we did a couple of unique things, and had a lot of laughs along the way, too. So even though the story itself is kind of sad, somebody described it as a sad story with a happy ending.