An Interview with Pianist/Keyboardist

Erik Norlander

of The Rocket Scientists by Glenn Milligan that too place in March 2007

Hi Erik, Great Album mate, really enjoy listening to it!!

[Erik] Thank you, Glenn, I appreciate it! This Hommage Symphonique album was really a lot of fun to make. The songs are all quite difficult, of course, but since I was so familiar with them, the performances came really naturally. It was much like sitting down and having a conversation with an old friend whom you haven't seen in many years. There was a little "catching up" to do, to learn some specifics and things like that, but overall it was all really familiar and a very pleasant experience.

What's your musical history and what keeps you going in this hard to survive thing they call The Music Biz?

[Erik] I started playing piano when I was 8 years old, and I kept up the studies through my university years. I played in school bands and orchestras as well, sometimes piano, but also clarinet and saxophone, too. I had an after school job in high school, and I saved up enough money at 16 to buy my first synthesizer. That hooked me completely -- there was no turning back from that point! Soon I was playing in rock bands and also doing studio sessions. By the time I was a young adult, it was clear that I could make a living doing this if I really, really dedicated myself to music and approached it as seriously as any career professional. So with that attitude, I have worked overtime for 20 years building this career. I look at the recording studio as my office -- I go there every day and try to get measurable work done.

There's so sitting around and waiting for inspiration. I find that when I "go to work" with that productive ethic foremost in mind, the creativity is always there. As far as surviving for so long, sure, there are lots of pitfalls on the road and sharks in the water, and there were many times when I could have been driven out of the business by the unscrupulous and the downright evil. But like a businessman or even an investor, I diversified my portfolio, so to speak, and I developed many projects in many parts of the world. When one would lose a little bit of fire, I would move to another one. The commonality in all of the projects, though, is my own musical personality -- my writing, my playing, and my production and arrangement style.

What is it about the Piano you like so much and do you have faves and why?

[Erik] I have heard this said in several forms from musicians who play other instruments: With the piano, all of the notes are right there in front of you! On a string instruments -- guitar, bass, cello, etc. -- you have to use certain hand positions to get specific notes of course. With a woodwind or brass instrument, you have press down certain key combinations and blow with a certain embouchure. But with the piano keyboard, there are all the notes! You just reach over and press the ones you want. I know that sounds silly, but it's really true. You can concoct a whole arrangement that way, just by balancing it across the keyboard: the bass plays down here, then a low synthesizer part, then a guitar part here, then a Hammond organ part, etc. For me it's really important in an arrangement to make sure that the instruments don't step on each other. That's what's so great about the legendary rock power trios -- each musician occupied his own space in the arrangement, and there was not much overlap.

When you start adding in keyboards or a second guitar to an arrangement, it can get cloudy and crowded really quick if you're not careful. As far as specific keyboard instruments, for acoustic pianos I really love the Hamburg Steinways, the Bösendorfer Imperial Grand (extra low notes -- whooh!) and the K. Kawai pianos. The last one, the Kawais, are not so expensive, but they really record well, particularly in a rock context. For other keyboard instruments, I have a Hammond organ from 1939 that I painstakingly restored over about a 5 year period in the 90s, along with a giant modular Moog synthesizer from 1967 that underwent a similar restoration. Then there's the Alesis Andromeda analog synthesizer, a keyboard that I'm proud to have been involved in the actual circuit and interface design. Other favorites are the Fender Rhodes, the ARP String Ensemble, Moog Taurus pedals, the Yamaha CS80 synthesizer and of course the Mellotron and Chamberlin tape sampler machines.

What is it about Prog Rock Pianists that really interests you & how have they influenced you as a performer and writer?

[Erik] I would point to "rock keyboardists" more than simply "rock pianists". When I think of rock pianists, I think of guys like Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino. That's not really my thing. I was very much inspired by the multi-keyboard artists like Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson, both of whom I've been lucky enough to get to know a bit. They really changed the way music was made on the keyboard, and through this they changed the face of rock music. Rock music has always been generally guitar oriented, but guys like Rick and Keith and other players like Mike Pinder from the Moody Blues, Richard Tandy from ELO, Eddie Jobson from UK, Matthew Fisher from Procol Harum, Geoff Downes from Asia, etc. ... all those guys created a rock sound with keyboards that didn't necessarily require a guitar. They played "keyboards that rocked", with or without a guitar in the mix.

What have been the most enjoyable songs to record for the album and why?

[Erik] The most enjoyable one was also the most odd song of the bunch: "Children of Sanchez" from Chuck Mangione. I say "odd" not because it's an odd song, but rather because it was the most curious choice out of the lot. The rest of the songs are squarely from the progressive rock genre, and "Children of Sanchez" is more of a jazz fusion piece. However I did bring out the jazz fusion element in a lot of the arrangements for the other songs, too, particularly in King Crimson's epic, "Starless". Overall, I really enjoyed writing arrangements for the "real instruments", the brass, woodwinds and strings. I have always wanted to work with a full orchestra, and although I've been able to bring in small string sections and solo wind players on past projects, this Hommage Symphonique album was really the first time I was able to do what I consider to be "full orchestra" arrangements.

How is the music scene in your area and how would you improve on it if you could?

[Erik] It's funny -- I consider "my area" to kind of be the world at large. My wife and I are living in Northern California now, and I'm not really too familiar with the music scene up here. We have played gigs in the San Francisco area in the past, but only passing through as visitors. Some of our best and most memorable concerts have been in Japan and even in Europe. I played a particularly great concert in St. Petersburg, Russia, a couple of years ago, and we turned that into a DVD called "Erik Norlander and Friends - Live in St. Petersburg". So the music scene to me is more of a global thing than a local community. I think the internet has helped to create that, too. As far as how to improve the scene, I think the business of music -- particularly the CD business -- could be cleaned up a lot.

So many companies just outright cheat and steal from artists. I've gone through legal channels on several occasions simply to get paid for CDs that were sold. That shouldn't have to happen. But the music business is still quite a roguish business and on the fringe of what most people would call conventional. I think that allows a lot of people, particularly non-musicians who are in it for the opportunity, the chance to swoop in and take advantage of artists, most of whom have no real business training or acumen for it. That's an old song I'm singing, and I'm sure you've heard it before, but it is surely the truth.

How did you come up the cover for 'Hommage Synphonique' and what made you decide to stick it in a Desert area with a stormy sky?

[Erik] Our cover artist, Jacek Yerka, has been a part of my company's productions all the way back to the first Lana Lane album, ‘Love is an Illusion’, in 1995. Jacek's work has a beautiful surreal quality to it, reminiscent of guys like Rene Magritte and Salvador Dali, but without being derivative in any way. As for the specific cover of Hommage Symphonique, the desert really looks like California where I grew up. We have big desert valleys here with high mountains on either side ("purple mountains' majesty" as the song goes!) and we often get dark stormy skies in those areas, particularly in winter and fall. I think the music on Hommage Symphonique has a very epic quality to it, and I wanted to reflect that in the artwork. You have this California desert, and then in the middle of it is this piano that looks rather out of place in classic surreal style. Coming out of the piano into the barren desert is this greenery -- trees, leaves, etc. -- that is a perfect metaphor for the music. Life coming to the desert.

What made you decide to initially form your own label and promotions company 'Think Tank Media' - was it in regard to control and finance or are there other reasons involved also that you are able to talk about?

[Erik] Over the years we have been approached many times by record companies large and small. We have worked with some, but only in licensing situations. In all cases I have maintained ownership of the master recordings and have been able to steer the direction of our releases. So often albums get re-directed by businessmen who want to make a quick buck. There was a big surge a few years ago with so-called "gothic metal". We were working with one company who really wanted to push us in that direction. But we had no interest in it. So the record company built up another band instead, and I think they probably had some financial success with it. But whether that music will last is quite another question. I have always tried to avoid passing fads and tried to create and produce music that is more timeless. That may mean "dated" in some cases, but I would surely much rather be "dated" than "gimmicky" or "trendy". And really, aren't all of the classic rock albums "dated" by definition? I guess in a way I've endeavored to make classic albums right from the start. It may take a few years for the music to reach the masses, but it does happen. We still have new fans discovering our early works even today, and that's really gratifying.

Have any of the original artists herard your versions of their songs yet - what was their opinions of them?

[Erik] I haven't heard much feedback yet from the original artists, but it is still a very new album. Although the vocalist on the album, Kelly Keeling, was touring with a large American production called Trans-Siberian Orchestra during the Christmas season, and Jon Anderson from Yes performed at some shows with him. Kelly gave Jon a copy of our version of Yes' "Turn of the Century", and apparently Jon was very complimentary about it. That was very nice to hear, of course!

What do you both (yourself and Lana) enjoy doing outside of music and why?

[Erik] Lana and I love to travel, and fortunately that's a nice fringe benefit of our job -- we get to play all around the world with our various tours. It's especially nice for me to meet people from other countries and cultures and learn about they live. Actual day-to-day life, too, and not just the tourist bus version! Spending time with friends in Madrid, St. Petersburg, Tokyo ... all fairly foreign places for someone like me, that's so interesting and mind expanding. I think everyone should "get out of town" at least a few times in their life. Our world is getting smaller with technology, fast planes, trains and ships, but also with the internet and communications technology. But the world is also getting scarier with all of the wars, conflicts and rising hatred throughout the world. I think if more people got out and saw how the rest of the world lived, it would change a lot of that ill will that exists in today's global community.

What are your most proud of in your career so far and why?

[Erik] I am proud of creating the music I envisioned, without compromise or bowing to greater powers, along with working with some of the most talented and artistic musicians I can imagine. I have had the privilege of working with what I consider to be the best musicians in the scene today, and that was been a real honor. Any accomplishments and achievements I have made as an artist surely rest largely on the shoulders of the great musicians who have helped me realize these visions.

What are you most looking forward to when you play Rotherham, UK on April 7th with The Rocket Scientists and your wife, Lana Lane?

[Erik] This will be my fourth visit to Rotherham, and the second concert there for Rocket Scientists. This is a great group of people and a really nice environment of true music aficionados. This will be a great Lana Lane concert as we will play her entire Lady Macbeth album, and of course we're looking forward to that. But for Rocket Scientists, it is even more special as this concert will mark the 10 year anniversary of our first concert there in Rotherham in 1997. And when I say "first concert", I don't mean just in Rotherham or the UK! That 1997 gig was the first time Rocket Scientists ever played a live concert! So I think it is very fitting that we launch our 2007 European tour from this same point as we did all those years ago.

A big thankyou for taking the time out to answer the questions.

See you on April 7th!!

[Erik] Thanks so much Glenn -- see you in Rotherham. Cheers!