Talking "Underworld" with Symphony X guitar shredder, Michael Romeo
Usually containing excitement and nerves is an easy thing to do, though there are times in this industry when you talk to an individual that takes talent and creativity that step further and containing oneself is near impossible... This might have been one of those times!
Michael Romeo, founding member and guitar shredder of New Jersey based Progressive Metal band "Symphony X", recently took the time to chat to us about the latest SX record, "Underworld".
Here's how it went:
SCR: How did you approach the writing of "Underworld"?
MICHAEL: Pretty much the same way we approached the last couple records. We usually try and find some sort of idea, a topic... just something to work with and this time we were looking at Dante's Inferno and Orpheus. The idea of going to hell and back for someone was the main idea. As for the music, we talked about doing a lot of the good things we've done over the years and having a good variety of very heavy stuff, mixed with some very melodic stuff and also some progressive and that's usually how we start writing. We'll talk about these things, we'll talk about the record and see how we can make a cohesive flow from song to song. We really try to fine-tune the song writing and that's really how it usually starts. The guys will let me go for a couple months, we'll put together the basic songs and come up with the riffs and when it comes together, we'll start the recording.
SCR: The album really does seem like a collection of what we'd consider to be the 'golden' elements of what Symphony X are about and it seems like you have achieved what you've set out to do with this release.
MICHAEL: That'sgood to hear! We thought about a lot of those things early on, so it's great that you guys are hearing it.
SCR: This album is quite something, and I wonder if Symphony X fans wondered how you were going to better Iconoclast, or if it was even possible? Do you think you've achieved it?
MICHAEL: Yeah! We're always trying to do something at least as good, maybe a little better but we always try to do something different from the last. We've always tried to do that and I think "Iconoclast" was definitely heavier because of the man vs machine theme. It was a little more relentless and a little more aggressive and heavy and then "The Odyssey" has this epic thing, very progressive but we always try to do the best we can with the albums.
SCR: So what was the inspiration for this album? Did you draw from sources other than existing music?
MICHAEL: I think most of the inspiration comes from right at beginning when we want to find that idea that gives people something to get a little excited about, and give you something to think about. We had talked about the music being a little of everything we've done so far, so some of it would be dark and some would be a little lighter, so when the Dante idea came, we started working with that and it seems to fit and get that little spark going. This guy is going to hell to save his woman, so the heavier songs and the darker lyrics work well with that but at the same time songs like "Without You" which is more of a ballad and that's giving you the lighter side; he's doing this for someone he cares about. Those ideas come right from the beginning and that's what gets the creativity flowing and I think that's pretty important early on. Obviously, you're inspired by all kinds of things in life; movies, other music, but I think finding that initial idea for the lyrics, music and the direction of the music is usually enough.
SCR: It's great that you've mentioned the focus of Dante's Inferno and the whole concept of going to hell and back because from the first listen of the album, the lyrical content is strikingly strong, as if there's a story being formed throughout the whole album.
MICHAEL: Sure, we think of the fans and what people want to hear. Some like the heavier stuff and some like the more melodic songs, so this was a conscious effort to do something for everybody but still make it work in its own right and hopefully we've achieved that.
SCR: There's some anthemic songs on this album. Opening track overture is pretty epic in its make up, as are all SX tracks; how long was the recording process for Underworld?
MICHAEL: Oh heck! let me see.. Maybe four or five months? The holidays sat right in the middle there, too. I know the whole writing process was... oh man...*laughs* Right at the beginning of 2014, maybe February or something we had already had the idea and talked about all the stuff and I think I remember writing about then and I think the songs were done by the summer and we started recording drums in September and I'm thinking we were mixing it in March so between the writing and recording and everything it was about a year?
SCR: Oh, so not all that bad, right?
MICHAEL: Yeah, from putting down that very first note to getting the mixing back must have been a year. There's the artwork and the label set up times so we still have to hack on a couple months at the end and we have the July release soon, but it doesn't seem like a lot of time to me, y'know? We're busy working and the thing's flowing and it takes as long as it takes for it to be good.
SCR: Do you tend to take charge with the writing then? Or is it a work between the band as a whole?
MICHAEL: Well, I'll start out with the original ideas and the basic skeleton of the songs, I'll get a basic demo and then maybe i'll get a couple done and I'll spend a day or two with Pinnella. We'll get stuff together and maybe Lepond will come down with the bass and maybe we'll make some changes, but usually I'll try to get the basic starting point together as much as I can. As we rehearse, changes are made and you're fine tuning things and experimenting and even through the recording process, yeah, you're trying some different things.
SCR: Do you have any personal stand-out songs on the album? Are there any that the whole band really felt during the writing/recording process?
MICHAEL: Yeah, there's a couple! I mean, there's a couple that you know when you're recording or when we're just listening back at the studio and you kind of get the goosebumps *laughs*? it's like oh wow! You know there's a little magic going on and there was a couple times throughout this record, in different ways, y'know? the 'Without You' song is very melodic and well... kinda catchy and there's some emotion in there and you can feel it, so that was one, but then again, a song like 'Kiss of Fire' - it's Thrashy!
SCR: Yeah! That's a hard hitting song!
MICHAEL: Yeah, exactly! It's like MAN! That's freaking badass! We definitely felt magic along the way with the different styles and a song like that is very strong melodically and it just has something about it, like 'Nevermore', they just have that energy there. There were definitely moments... 'To Hell and Back' i [“I”] mean, there's so many! We really tried to make every song really strong and fit in the right place. A lot of thought went into it, no shit man, a lot of thought.
SCR: It really shows! With the variation in sound I'm sure this record will be on repeat for quite sometime!
MICHAEL: Haha! I hope so!
SCR: So what's next?! Are you working on any other projects outside of Symphony X?
MICHAEL: Uh, yeah. I'm always debating a solo record...
SCR: Yes! DO IT!
MICHAEL: Hah. Yeah but just from talking about the record here, the SX albums take a lot of time, I mean a real lot of time goes into that and we're doing all the recording at the studio at my place. So I'm here all the time, so that whole year is like full-time for me, but yeah, I'm always doing solos for somebody or I'll record an intro for somebody and see different friends in bands and maybe help them out and that kind of thing.
SCR: So there's at least a little chance to step away from SX?
MICHAEL: Yeah, sure... and I'm always thinking about this solo record in the back of my head, putting little things away here and there and I just try and do as much as I can. I've just been contacted by some guys in Hollywood about some movies, TV and Video game music and I wouldn't mind getting into that world a little on the side! I'd have fun with that because I love all that big epic stuff man, yeah!
SCR: I'm sure your writing and playing would work wonders on that sort of platform! Last big question that I'm sure all UK Symphony X fans will want to know... are there any plans for a UK tour or at least some dates in the UK?
MICHAEL: Sure, we're talking about that right now. All we have right now is some dates in the states with some good friends of ours, 'Overkill'. We've known the guys forever and they're good friends. So that's in September/October and then we're going to be coming over that way right after the new year then? I guess February/March is the kind of time that we're looking at, so yeah, we'll definitely be there and we're looking forward to getting back on the road.
SCR: Awesome! It's been a long time coming for us UK based fans, I think! *laughs*
MICHAEL: Man, it really has!
Interview by: Christiane Robinson