Michael Romeo Interview – A Perfect Symphony Part One: 1970's to 2000.
Back in the mid 1990's Symphony X surfaced from the fertile breeding ground for virtuoso rock and shred/metal guitarists that is New Jersey, USA. One of those very rare bands whose signature sound and approach was pretty much fully formed from day one, Symphony X emerged with a stunning blend of precision metal riffing, soaring melodies and show stopping solo passages from guitarist Michael Romeo and keyboardist Mike Pinella that provided the previously unchallenged Dream Theater with a viable contender for the throne of the ultimate prog metal band.
Over the past decade Symphony X have steadily improved their craft with a succession of increasingly successful albums and tours that culminated in 2007's 'Paradise Lost' - which has been their most successful to date and seen them traverse the globe on a number of hugely successful tours (including one with the aforementioned Dream Theater).
To many virtuoso metal guitarists and shred fans back in that 'lost decade' of grunge, Britpop and virulent anti technique, Romeo provided a lifeline with his genuinely fresh take on shred guitar. He proved that you could do something fresh within a genre that was frequently written off by the mainstream guitar media as being creatively stagnant. In addition to his brutal rhythmic ability, Romeo incorporated a unique approach to scalar and arpeggio lines utilising a seamless tapping and legato approach that influenced a whole new generation of metal players. Whilst the influences of players such as Jason Becker and the ubiquitous Yngwie Malmsteen remain self-evident in his playing, he nevertheless took these elements a stage further and is nowadays increasingly well-respected as a genuinely original voice in the shred arena.
Indeed, AOG's resident wunderkind guitarist, Andy 'The Future of Shred' James states: "As far as neo-classical shred guitarists go he is definitely? one of my favourites: with his fantastic metal rhythm and his very unique approach to tapping within arpeggios, scales and pentatonics, he’s been a massive influence!"
In this exclusive 2 part interview, AOG spoke with Michael from his New Jersey studio as he was preparing for the release of 'Paradise Lost' and again in March 2008 midway through their headlining European Tour to get the low down on the Prog Metal Titan that is Michael Romeo.
What age were you when you started playing?
Probably the first musical thing I had going on when I was young was playing piano a little bit: y’know, like you do when you're in elementary school. We had a band and I played clarinet a little bit and I could kind of read music and I understood a little bit about theory from playing the piano for a couple of years - I wasn't too bad in the end.
Did you have piano lessons at school?
No, we had a piano at the house and my parents had a piano teacher come around once a week.
So, unlike a lot of guitarists you started reading music right from the beginning which is a real help: when did you get into the guitar?
I got a guitar when I was about 14 or so, y’know what it was like at that age! I was into a lot of bands like Led Zeppelin, Sabbath and Judas Priest - you can probably guess what I was into! Picking up the guitar and knowing all my stuff from playing the piano - like knowing how to read and understanding about notes and basic theory - was a pretty big help.
Did you have any lessons on the guitar or were you all self taught?
In the very beginning I had some lessons, yeah - the guys name was Wayne Cooper: he was a very good fingerstyle player and played a lot of the classical stuff, but he was also familiar with a lot of the rock stuff. I started off learning the easy stuff - y’know the pentatonic scale and everything. I'll tell you a funny thing about Wayne, because I still see him sometimes: he was telling me recently that he was in the Guinness Book Of Records because he played the guitar for some ridiculous amount of time - like a week straight or something crazy! I mean, this was the kind of crazy guy that was teaching me! As I said, in the beginning it was only just the basics like chords and pentatonic stuff - and a bit of relevant theory: then I kind of just took it from there, and like everyone else, I just picked solos off records and kind of advanced it all.
Did you develop quickly?
Yeah, I think so... There were some things I did when I was young that were real bad: I mean I wasn't doing alternate picking - always doing lots of down strokes.
Y’know, when I started to hear Al Di Meola and John McLaughlin - and of course eventually Malmsteen! - and heard how they picked, I decided to re- analyse the whole picking thing.
Bearing in mind those influences, what year was it that you started playing SERIOUSLY?
Well, I was born in ’68 so it was the early 80’s: 1980, 1981...
DURING THAT era Eddie Van Halen WAS MASSIVE: WAS HE AN INFLUENCE AT ALL?
Yeah, for a little bit... But for me it was all the guys who were the first: Jimmy Page, Ritchie Blackmore - even Angus Young. However, the main guy for me was Randy Rhoads. He had more of that classical thing and I started to go much more in that direction than Van Halen. From hearing and reading about Randy, then you get to Uli Roth - who really had that classical thing down: and then that takes you to Ritchie Blackmore. I was listening to loads of Di Meola - and then of course Malmsteen came along! - so it was very much the about the classical side of things for me.
New Jersey Heroes
You're from New Jersey, aren't you - because we were chatting with Ron Thal a few months ago and apparently all you guys knew each other? There must be something in that...
Yeah, something in the water or something?!
Well, New Jersey seems to have such a disproportionate amount of absolutely world-class virtuoso rock guitarists that there must be something there! Growing up and getting involved in the music scene there, did you ever see any of your peers play in the local clubs before they all became ‘names’?
I remember seeing lots of the guys back in about ’91: the Sam Ash music store had a big state wide guitar competition. That year they narrowed it down to something like 20 guys: the night of the event they had all these great musicians as judges, Phil Collen from Def Leppard, and guys like that - and as a finalist you had to go on stage and play for 3 minutes in front of those guys - and every other hot guitarist in town!
We've chatted with Rob Balducci (fellow New Jersey axeman and now Favored Nations recording artist) as well as Ron Thal about that very competition: did you guys have to play with a backing band or track - or was it a completely solo performance?
Tell the truth, I can't remember: I know I didn't have a backing track - in fact I don't think any of the guys had anything! You just had to go on stage and play for 3 minutes and not stop - it was pretty intimidating! That was probably the first time I met Ron - and Stephen Ross - so it was really intimidating: but the thing was, everyone was cool, everyone respected everybody - it wasn't being back at High School when everyone’s trying to outdo everyone.
Speaking of school, what did you do when you left high school for a job?
I began teaching at the local music store, even when I was at high school. I was only teaching beginners - I was still getting my chops together a little bit. But the main thing I did when I left school was teaching. Like anyone else, I have had my fair share of odd jobs as well, but I did enough teaching to try and get by and give me the chance to make music.
This must have been the early 90’s era - in real terms a couple of years after the heyday of ‘proper players’ as it were. This was when the evil ‘Grunge’ era rose: that must have affected you...
Well, the good thing was that there were a lot of guys who were still properly into guitar, and were serious about it, y’know? They would still come in with a Cacophony record and ask me to figure out all those amazing Jason Becker and Marty Friedman parts for them: yeah, there were still some guys out there who cared about playing in tune!
When did you get your first band together - and did you ever do the cover band circuit?
I never really did the full on covers thing. I mean, all through High School I'd be jamming with this guy or that guy - and there'd be all the ‘Battle of the Bands’ competitions and stuff - but nothing really serious. I was never really into doing the whole covers bands thing: right from the beginning I was always really into doing my thing.
A New Shred Approach
One of Michael's trademarks is his amazingly fluid tapping approach: with his scalar and arpeggio runs - combined with loads of string skipping - he developed a whole new vocabulary for the whole Neo Classical/Shred repertoire, lines that are now referred to as being ‘Romeo-esque’.
Did you have any people who influenced you in developing your unique approach to tapping? Because it’s definitely not the same as the typical Yngwie-esque Harmonic Minor alternate picked run and Tony Macalpine/Jason Becker/Vinnie Moore sweep picked arpeggio sequences that so many players of that ilk replicated. How did you pick up on all of that?
A lot of it was consciously trying to do something different: I mean, I was totally into the Malmsteen stuff - and all the Shrapnel guys - but if you were into it too much, then you would start to sound like this guy or that guy: you end up losing your own identity. All those guys you mentioned have something great about themselves, so it is really hard to take some of those things and make them your own.
So, I would perhaps try to take some sort of pattern that you'd usually sweep, and see if I could tap it and come up with some different kind of phrases. There was a time when I first got turned onto Allan Holdsworth - and he is such an amazingly fluid guitarist that I thought I'd try and emulate that sort of thing with the tapping...
I think there were a lot of little things that led to me finding my own voice. Working with a keyboard player is another thing, you know: when they say "Oh, let’s do this together" and they're playing stuff with the most impossibly uncomfortable intervals for conventional guitar playing to replicate - well, you have to be creative to be able to do it.
Eventually it starts to become something you can do all the time: it becomes your own style.
How much were you playing up to the dark chapter period: to get to that level of technical proficiency how much work per day were you practising?
A lot - really a lot! I first started practising a lot when I heard Randy Rhoads and Al Di Meola - and then when Malmsteen appeared on the scene... that’s when I started getting really serious!
The use of a metronome divides many of the big names in this genre: did you use a metronome right from the beginning?
Yes I did...
You say from the beginning: do you mean right from the off, or rather when you started to get ‘serious’?
Yeah, I see what you mean: I think for the first 3 or 4 years - up until I was about 17 - I did what everyone else did, and got kind of ok. But at around 18 I really started to hear other the guys and realised I'd better shake this up a little - it’s tough to remember!
I just remember reading and hearing a load of these guys say that they’d worked on their picking technique by using a metronome that I knew I should do the same. Also, I made sure that I'd pick up some books and practise the stuff in them - a real favourite one was Paganini’s ‘24 Caprices’: that was really the 'in thing' back then (even though it’s impossible!), so you had to give that one a go!
Out of your influences, who did you look to for getting your picking chops down?
Di Meola and Malmsteen!
Holdsworth...well, at least trying to emulate his sound! I think at that point I didn't really understand him too much as a musician - I mean the guy is from another planet! - but it was going for that really, really fluid thing he has. Also, Jason Becker had a lot of that too. He was also an awesome picker... and, of course, another amazing picker was Paul Gilbert. One guy who made a big impression on me when I saw him do a clinic was Frank Gambale: he gave me a realisation that there were other ways to approach the instrument and that really inspired me to do what I do..
A New Symphony
In the early 90’s you started to work properly on what became ‘The Dark Chapter’: how did you hook up with (Symphony X Keyboardist) Mike Pinella?
Well, the way the ‘The Dark Chapter’ thing happened was that I was in a lot of bands that weren't really happening, so I just decided to noodle around in my bedroom with a 4 track and drum machine and try to put some stuff together of my own. I sent it up to Mike Varney and he put some great things in the magazines about it. There were some publications in Japan - like Burn magazine - and it developed a real buzz over there. I mean there was nothing really going on in the States at this time!
Having said that, Dream Theater came through with ‘Images and Words’: I imagine that must have been inspirational - did that help you keep the faith when they struck big?
Yeah - I remember when that came out: great musicians, great music. There really wasn't much going on apart from that though...
As they are fellow East Coasters, did you ever see them live in the early days?
No, it wasn't until around 1998 that I eventually saw them live. We were doing some press over in Germany and we all stopped on by to go and see them.
How did the first Symphony X album come about then?
With the ‘The Dark Chapter’ thing (which was only really a little demo) getting all that attention in Japan, I got a call one night from a record label in Japan asking if I had a band that did that sort of thing - so, of course I said "Yeah!" And, as I hadn't, I then had to go and look for some guys to try and make it happen!
The one guy who I was always in bands with was the original bass player, Tom Miller: we were always in bands together at high school, and he was like me - always practising and into the chops stuff - really on top of it y’know? We got along great - we liked all the same music and everything - so I got in touch with him and got together and then started looking for some other guys. Mike Pinella was just a guy working at a music store in town who we knew was good, so we checked him out. He was into the classical stuff and was a real 'properly trained in a music school' guy. It just all came together very well, and we tried to write an album really quick.
Were did you record it?
In my bedroom! Everything happened so fast that we really didn't know each other that well - apart from me and Tom; Jason we met through the original singer Rod Taylor, another guy we knew of from the local scene - so it was never like one of those bands that had been pals forever, working away on music together for years and years. It was simply "We've got to do something - we’re not really sure what it’s going to be - but we sort of want it to kinda be like this...!"
The first record was really kind of like a demo, with us figuring stuff out as we went along: finding out what we were going to do. Over time, and with each successive album, we're kind of narrowing it down that little bit more and more...
How did it do? You got a good response from it in the reviews didn't you - particularly Japan again...
It was only released in Japan. In ‘98 I guess they saw the potential first! For me, looking at that album now, the production is God awful - but you can really hear the chops, and you could kind of see where the music was going. Like I said, we didn't really know each other well and were just trying to find out our band identity.
So, the album was released, you get some decent reviews and sell a few records: what was the plan then - how would you take it to the next level?
Well, firstly we knew we could do better, and so we just wanted to spend time writing together and figuring out our things. As it was, I think the second album only came out something like 8 months later!
Compositionally there is a massive difference between the albums. Symphony X definitely have their own identifiable sound - and by ‘Divine Wings of Tragedy’ it was pretty much fully formed. Getting away from guitarists specifically, there was a lot more there compositionally: you'd developed a unique hybrid of metal and progressive rock, but also crucially a lot of overtly romantic and classical themes. What were your musical influences?
Well by the time of ‘Divine...’ we'd basically found what our direction was going to be. We also kind of now sounded like a real band - it was all coming together real well, and we'd integrated all the classical influences into a cohesive style.
The Romantic & The Classical
One aspect of Symphony X’ music that separates them from many in the prog metal genre is a great understanding and integration of classical and romantic music themes, and their compositional structure. This never sounds forced - as it can do with a lot of their peers - and always serves a definite melodic purpose that takes their music to a higher level. I ask Michael about this...
‘The Dark Chapter’ had a lot of solos in the Bach kind of style - very Malmsteen really - but compositionally I was already borrowing a lot from Mozart, Elgar and people like that. Around that time I started listening to loads of other stuff and appreciating it more. So, some of that was starting to come into play: also a little bit of the film score type of thing: I've always been a fan of John Williams and a lot of the other great movie composers, so we started utilising that in several of the songs and gradually that became an integral part of our sound.
I imagine then that you are a fan of Hans Zimmer's work (massively successful Hollywood composer perhaps best known for his incendiary ‘Gladiator’ soundtrack)?
Some of his stuff I love - but some is a little too ‘happy’ for me. Mind you, he’s a pro and has to do music in many differing styles for his job.
Symphony X’ vocal arrangements were one of the first things that attracted me to the band - how did they evolve?
Probably the main thing is the influence we all have from Queen - and again a lot of the classical stuff, going back to Mozart’s 'Requiem' and all of that era. By the time this all became part of our sound Russell Allen was in the band - and he’s a really great singer.
How did you find him - was he another local musician?
It’s a funny story: when we had Rod (the original guy) it got to the point that it wasn't really working out: he kinda wasn't into what we were doing enough. So, when we it all got going with the first record - and we knew that Rod wouldn't last long term - he said "I don't know guys, but I know another singer: maybe he’s not as good as me, but I can introduce you to this guy Russell".
And, as luck would have it, that’s what happened. So, we got introduced to Russell through Rod - and he came down whilst we were recording the second album. He kind of comes from more of a more straight ahead rock background than us - but by the time of the ‘Divine...’ record we were all on the same page, all understood what we were doing and were all committed to seeing it through.
The Metal Business
Were you still on the same record label or had you switched?
We were still with the Zero Corporation in Japan, but by the time the ‘Divine...’ record was ready, there was some stuff happening in Europe - and other places as well. That album did a lot for us: like I said, it felt like we were a ‘real band’ now, we really had our thing going and more and more people were getting exposed to it.
That’s the album I first heard back in ’97 - and at that time was a breath of fresh air! Did it sell many copies?
In Japan it did really well. As it was the first record available in many different places it really started to sell. It’s one of the biggest selling records we've ever had: that, ‘The Odyssey’, and of course the latest ‘Paradise Lost’.
Were you touring at this point?
When ‘Divine...’ came out we set up our first tour in Japan, but unfortunately there was some friction going on between Jason and Tom and Jason left the band for a little while - so we didn't have a drummer. By the time we found Tom Walling - who was on the 4th record - a lot of time had gone by. The Japanese were always onto us for a new record and we were kinda rushing back into the studio to get stuff done with this new guy.
I think of all our albums, that’s not one of my favourites mainly because of that reason - it’s kinda rushed. Some of the stuff on there is not what it could and should have been.
Were you doing this full time now? You weren't holding down any other jobs I presume?
Yeah pretty much - maybe doing some lessons here and there...
Had you got a web site by then?
Yeah I think so.
Because the internet’s been a lifeline for loads of people in the progressive metal genre - indeed any niche music - and thus a lot of artists basically have ended up doing a lot of the marketing and promoting themselves; in your case am I right in thinking that the record company looked after all of that?
How did ‘Twilight in Olympus’ sell? It seems that very soon after that release you were working on the first of your real epic albums ‘V - The New Mythology’...
‘Twilight...’ did really good in Japan and some other places as well - others only OK: it could have been a little better. Regardless, that’s when we really did start touring.
Where did you tour for that?
Japan, South America, Europe.
'V - The New Mythology’ is a true epic album: how did you approach this record?
Like I said, after the ‘Twilight..’ album we were all a little disappointed: we knew we could have done something better, but at same time we were touring and there was some internal stuff happening with the band that maybe explains why it wasn't as strong as it could have been.
So, when we came to doing the ‘V...’ record we figured "Let’s do something different - let’s try and do a concept thing, and try and make it a big epic". Incorporate the orchestra a little more, and the tools and technology we had to do that record with were a lot better. We did the best we could, and did something that kind of painted a bigger picture, it’s more about the record as a whole than just any one song.
Were you on Inside Out Records AT this point?
Yeah I think so...I'm trying to remember - it was so long ago! Inside Out were involved with us for a while because they were licensing the other albums from the Japanese and so when we came to start work on 'V...' they were in the picture - even though we weren't directly with them at that point.
The ‘V...’ record was the first record where we were kind of free; the Zero Corporation was kind of always under EMI in Japan, and EMI kind of took it over and we kind of went with them - but there were several companies involved with this worldwide.
Look out for Part Two very soon when Michael brings us up to date...