ProgressoR / Uzbekistan Progressive Rock Pages

Interviews of Prog

Bill Pohl
Bill Pohl

VM: Hi Bill, it's been ages! Almost four years has passed since our last conversation, so I think it is time to refresh some topics we've been talking about, and not only, of course. Well, the principal topic is still topical (sorry for the trite pun). The release of a new album by The Underground Railroad was announced more than once during the last two years, and yet, thousands of the band's fans, myself included, still don't have any concrete information on the matter. Please tell me how it turned out to be that you worked on the album so long and how you worked and work on it in general? What are the principal causes of the delay?

BP: Yea, we've really dragged this out, haven't we? We started writing the new material in early 2000. By the end of 2002 we had the whole thing written for the most part, but then Mike Richardson quit the band. You may recall that he replaced Matt Hembree, the bassist who played on "Through and Through". Well, he'd had enough and luckily Matt decided to join up again. So that caused some delay, too. Matt had to learn all the new stuff using demos and score. Anyway, we'd made rough demos of all the songs over the last few years. When it came time to record, we took our drummer John into a studio and laid down all his tracks while Kurt, Matt and I played along for reference. We dumped all his drum tracks onto Adat tapes, which are really formatted S-VHS tapes, and proceeded to lay down the rest of the tracks on our Adat machines at my house. Kurt's got a nice old Steinway at his house, so we moved the machines and boards over there so he could record the piano parts, but the rest of the keyboards parts, the guitar, the bass, etc was done here at my place. As far as composing goes, there's no set method to writing the music. This was more of a band effort than "Through and Through" was. For a few of the things, I would have a piece written, teach the guys the chord changes and explain my ideas for rhythms and bass lines and things would just develop from there as a band. Kurt and I work really well together that way. He comes up with really intricate and ornate contrapuntal things for chord changes and riffs that I come up with. Things I never would have thought of. He's got way more discipline and patience for that kind of thing, whereas I think I tend to want to improvise my part until something sticks. Then I just hope I remember it. A few times, I'd forgotten the part I came up with, and luckily Kurt had it written it down somewhere. But a lot of the time, things developed out of just jamming around together as a band. Mike was involved in a lot of the album in that way. Longer songs are written differently, too. Things like Creeper contain sections that were composed by each person just coming up with his part, other bits were written entirely by Kurt and handed out on paper, a couple bits were written by Mike, so there's some variety there.

VM: At which stage of the production of the album have you reached at the moment? Has it been given a title already?

BP: We just need to record the vocals and mix it. That's it. The title is "The Origin of Consciousness".

VM: Can you tell us, at least approximately, when we can expect to hear it?

BP: I can't really see why it couldn't be out by the end of the summer.

VM: It's clear that Kurt and you are at the helm of everything concerning The Underground Railroad. And what about John Livingston and Matt Hembree? Are they still in the band? If not, who are the other members of the band's current lineup?

BP: It's the same lineup as was on the first album. Matt finished recording all his bass parts just a couple weeks ago. He did a fantastic job, too. He's got a unique way of improvising little accents and ornamenting things in general. He's learned a bunch of music in a very short time. Gigging regularly has helped solidify that stuff, too, for all of us. That's another big difference between this and the first album. We've been playing this stuff at gigs for a while now.

VM: Can you tell us anything else about the compositional and stylistic aspects of the new album? Does it follow the musical basis laid on "Through and Through", at least overall?

BP: I think that if you liked the songs Through and Through and Doorman you'll really like this album. To me, it has more forward momentum and thrust than the first one did. I think it's more satisfying harmonically, too. The album features lots of Kurt's piano playing, also, which didn't really come through on "Through and Through".

VM: Will the album be released by The Laser's Edge or by some other label?

BP: Yes. Ken Golden will be releasing it. We're talking about cover art right now.

VM: >"Through and Through" is one of the very best albums of contemporary Symphonic Progressive (>Top-2000). Let's undertake a brief excursus into the past, OK? What memorable events had taken place at the time when you worked on the album?

BP: Thank you. And thanks for your support. You've given us some really nice coverage on your site Vitaly. Well, during the four years we worked on "Through and Through", marriages broke up, marriages began, parents died, children were born, I moved a couple times: pretty significant four years for most of us.

VM: Are you satisfied with the promotion and distribution of "Through & Through" done by The Laser's Edge and the band's deal with the label in general?

BP: Oh yea, we have a really cool deal with Laser's Edge, and I think he's done a great job of distributing the album. It seems to have really made its way around the world through retail stores, mail order, internet, magazine write-ups, etc. I think Ken's really got it together there. From what I understand, he's got more promotional muscle now than he did back then, too.

VM: Can you tell me how many copies of the album have been sold?

BP: I have no idea! The first couple years seemed pretty good, then sales just dropped off. I still get real nice emails from people who have just bought it, but it's definitely just a trickle.

VM: How many times have you performed "Through and Through" live? Were there any other songs in the set apart from those from the album?

BP: We've played the whole album many times, but in the last year we've focused on playing more new material. We still play Doorman, May-fly, In the Factory and Mars, but we haven't done The Comprachicos of the Mind or Through & Through for a year and a half now. We have been playing Creeper live for a few years now. That's on the new album. We used to also include a song from Kurt's first album called Black Wedge. We did a thing off my old solo CD, too, during the earlier gigs. I really prefer just playing the new stuff personally.

VM: The Underground Railroad hasn't limited your musical activity (even if this is the band that made you a really famous person in the world of Progressive Rock). Before, there was your solo album, >"Solid Earth", and also Kurt Rongey's >"Book in Hand", on which you played as well. In other words, Kurt and you have become somewhat of a creative tandem long before you had formed The Underground Railroad. Please tell me how and when you met each other and, finally, started working together?

BP: I was in a Prog trio called Morning Thunder in 1989. We were just kids then. Dave Gryder was drumming; he and I had been playing together since late 1986. Anyway, we were doing all this schizoid sounding stuff at a terrible little club here in Fort Worth. Kurt was studying music composition at the local university and saw a flyer I had hung up for the gig. On the flier, I had written out a couple bars of our music that I thought would be impressive to a high-browed college-educated person while being imposing and frightening to the layperson. I guess Kurt saw it and thought, "Hmm, angular riffing in 10/8?! We'll see about THAT!" Anyway, we started playing together right away.

VM: Unfortunately, I haven't heard the second solo album by Kurt, "That Was Propaganda". Did you play on that as well?

BP: Yes, I played on a little more than half of it. With the exception of a few leads, though, I was playing written parts; lots of lines that harmonize with the vocals and keyboard parts. I think you might still be able to get it from Mellow Records of Italy. I know Kurt doesn't have anymore. It's absolutely fantastic. Listening to it, you realize what an accomplished composer Kurt is and was early on. Not only do you hear the formal training, but the original ideas and that organic quality that only the best stuff has. It's a monster. I don't think it was distributed or promoted very well at all. It's very heavy stuff, and I think some of the Neo-proggers who like the sugar-and-spice approach couldn't get into it. I saw a couple reviews; one person seemed to really understand it and appreciate what was going on, but the someone else, I can't remember who, just made the usual comparisons: dissonance=Red-era King Crimson, big string chords=Genesis, Fender Rhodes sound=Canterbury, Moog leads=ELP, blah, blah, blah. I recorded most of my parts for that in early 1993, and by that point, most of the music had been finished for a while. During that period, Kurt was living in Tulsa, which is where he grew up. I drove up there for a few days to record the guitar. It was funny. Well, it's funny NOW, but Rongey didn't take any time off work for me to do my parts, so for a couple sessions I had to wait for him to get off work at 10 or 11 pm to start recording. Everything was set up at his parents' house out in the den. Now, at 11 pm I'm usually done for the day. Ready for bed. So, my brain is trying to shut down for the day while I'm trying to record these parts, and my timing on certain things isn't what Kurt's after, so I've gotta do it over and over again, and there aren't any click tracks, so during pauses in the music you have to keep the foot tapping or you won't come in on the next section right on the money, so those bits would take a hundred attempts. And the whole time I was feeling weird because it was the middle of the night and we're recording cranked up guitar while his nice parents are trying to sleep, and meanwhile, I'm getting more and more tired. I think I'm a better musician for having done those TWP sessions. It's actually a fond memory, and I'm glad to have been part of such an intense album. We redid some of the guitar and his vocal stuff later on in 1997, I think. If you can find a copy grab it.

VM: To put it mildly, very little is known about your activity from 1993 to 1998. What did you do during those years? Did you participate in any other bands or projects?

BP: I gigged with my own trio during 1993 and 1994. We were doing stuff off "Solid Earth" and some cover material. We played a bunch around town and even went to Houston to open for Anglagard in December of '93. In 1994 Kurt joined that band on keys and vocals. We kept gigging around Dallas and Fort Worth until the end of that year when Kurt and I were spoiling for improvisation and experimentation. We started up a really cool band called Anne Hand. Dave Haley played bass and Nathan Brown drummed. We wrote some really cool stuff and broke up. Some of the material from the song Through and Through and a riff from one of our new songs came from a piece I had written for that band called "Through and Through". That period between late '94 and early '95 was great. We were all really focused on that band. We didn't really do any recordings, although I have videos of each of the three gigs we did. What else! I played on some friends' albums. I did some guitar synth on Last Chapter's first album. They were a sort of doom-metal-turned-prog band whose drummer, Jason Spradlin who's now in 99 Names of God, has been a friend for many years. That album was actually released on Pavement Records. I saw some reviews in different metal magazines, but I don't think the band still exists. I think Jason was the creative force there. He quit as his tastes became more progressive. I did a couple gigs on guitar synth with them. I played on Dave Gryder's first album, Covenant. Just a couple short leads: one that he wanted and one that I wanted. There have been a few other things, too, but that's the gist of it. There's a pretty detailed list on our website.

VM: Your style of playing guitar is highly original. Nevertheless, what music or musicians have inspired you as a composer and guitarist?

BP: Thank you very much. My influences on guitar aren't necessarily my compositional influences. I'm a huge Genesis and Yes fan. I also love Dave Stewart's stuff from the early and mid 70s. Things that Keith Emerson has done have had an impact. Seems like a lot of the chordal and harmonic things that have influenced me have come from keyboardists. John McLaughlin is more of a compositional influence for me, too. I've spent a whole bunch of time listening to the Coltrane quartet stuff, too; with McCoy Tyner. Zappa's another one. Gentle Giant, too, although, you get more of that particular influence in Kurt's writing. Allan Holdsworth has been a big influence since '87. I think that's when I really discovered him. It's really dumb. Someone gave me Road Games for my 16th birthday in 1984 and I just shelved it! It just didn't appeal to me. Dave Gryder got me listening to UK not long after and I think that started it. Eric Johnson's playing, too: I'm not so influenced by the compositional styles of those guys as I am the guitar playing. I guess I have elements of those playing styles in my own playing while going off in a different direction compositionally. Steve Morse has been a favorite for many years. Things like Night Meets Light rank among my favorite bits of music of all time. It's on the Dregs album What If in case you want to check it out. Also, not long after releasing "Solid Earth" in '92 I had the opportunity to see Shawn Lane live at a local club. That was pretty influential, too. Here was a guy who was obviously into the same stuff I was, Holdsworth, Eric Johnson, Steve Morse, but who had taken his playing so far over the top as to be almost unbelievable. It was good for me to be there. His bassist had heard "Solid Earth" and tried to call me that day to invite me to the gig. He introduced me to Lane and invited me to hang out after the show where I spent some time chatting to Lane about Steve Morse's writing. Some guy, a dishwasher I guess, came out of the kitchen door at the club and asked Shawn, "Hey man! Was that you playing all that guitar?" Lane goes, "Yea" the guy says, "Man, you sound just like Ted Nugent!" Anyway, his bassist, Barry Bays kept saying, "Yea, Shawn, you should check out his album". Nice guy. I was flattered. Thanks, Barry! I don't know if Lane ever heard it, though. I was really sad to hear that he died. I think I saw him in his prime.

VM: As a guitar player, do you prefer any special models of guitars and sound processors?

BP: I have a 1980 Les Paul that my folks gave me when I was in 8th grade after I had gone through a couple different cheaper guitars that each had their own problems which I complained about to Dad. My parents were and are very supportive of the whole music thing. In the last several years I've started to favor old SGs. I play a 1965 SG Standard these days. I need real low action and the warmer tone that those older fat mahogany necks seem to have. It also needs to have enough brightness to cut through, which is sometimes where the Les Pauls fall short. The SGs have a bit more top end to them. Plus, on the SGs you have total access to the highest frets. I use Marshall 50 watt reissue heads in an A/B setup. One amp gets the clean, swirly and rhythm guitar sounds, while the other is strictly for leads. I haven't gotten into any of the new modeling or digital amps or anything like that. I just use a bunch of individual effect boxes to get what I want. No big deal, really.

VM: Have you ever considered recording another solo album?

BP: Oh yea. I'm in a fusiony kind of band right now with Dave Gryder and Jim Palmer called Mad Jack McMaddd. We gig a lot around town, just doing covers of things by Dregs, Holdsworth, Jeff Beck, Mahavishnu, etc. We've got a few original things, so I imagine sooner or later (probably later) we'll want to record something. It's really fun doing that stuff. It doesn't take hours of rehearsal to work up songs or even to maintain the pieces we already know! It's good for the chops, too.

VM: Finally, do you have any, at least preliminary plans regarding your future musical activity? I mean, in the more or less distant future - after the band's new album is released, etc.

BP: I'd like for Underground Railroad to be able to do some gigs around the country and even in Europe. Hopefully, we'll get involved with some festivals in the next year or so. It's just a matter of making it happen. Apart from wanting to do that kind of thing, I just keep playing and trying to improve as a musician.

VM: Many thanks for doing the interview Bill. I wish you health, happiness, and that all of your most cherished dreams to come true.

BP: Thank you very much Vitaly. I wish the same for you. It's been my pleasure to do this.

VM: May 1, 2004

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