Michael Romeo Interview – A Perfect Symphony Part Two: 2002 - 2008
After the critical success of ‘V: The New Mythology’, 2002’s epic ‘The Odyssey’ saw the band shift up a gear and begin to get the international recognition that they deserved.
I remember that with the release of this album - in Europe at least - your profile really began to get bigger: did it take things to the next level for you as a band?
Oh yeah! I think with that record - kind of like what we've done with ‘Paradise Lost’ - we made a conscious decision to get a bit heavier. We'd done the concept thing with ‘V...’, so it was like "Let’s kind of change stuff with this one: get back to some heavy riffs and maybe a get a little dryer production". So we tried something different with that. That album probably did the best for us everywhere out of all the records up until 'Paradise Lost'. Even in the States here, we had a lot more stuff going on and went out on our own for some shows for the first time.
During the last five years or so it seems as if your work rate with the band has been much greater with more tours and everything: do you think the general metal and progressive scene has got a lot better in the last few years?
Yeah - definitely the Metal scene. Here in the States, I'm starting to see a lot more kids playing guitar and finding out about Black Sabbath and everything - just the same as when I was a kid: it really works in cycles.
Does that translate into concert attendances and record sales going up?
Yeah, a little bit of everything; it’s definitely got a lot better and - as we'll talk about later - with 'Paradise Lost' it's gone great!
America seemed - particularly in the 90’s - pretty tough for a band like yourselves. ‘Paradise Lost’ has had a great reception from fans and critics alike and many of the guitar magazines have been featuring you for the first time; in particular Guitar Techniques here in the UK ran an excellent style analysis back in February 2007. There was an excellent feature written and performed by Martin Goulding from The Guitar Institute in London - did you manage to see this?
Yeah, I've heard about that magazine, I'll have to get a copy.
You'll like it, it’s a great take on your playing and approach - and let me know what you think about our very own Andy James's style study! 2007/2008 has also been a good year for some of the more mainstream rock press over here - such as 'Classic Rock' magazine - giving Symphony X some great album and concert reviews...
Yeah, well, as I said we definitely tried to do something different with this record: more guitar driven songs - a lot of them are very riffy. We really concentrated on the song writing, but also trying to keep the epic sound and with lots of chops in there as well so it would appeal to a lot of people.
I gather that you had a lot of problems with the actual making of the record though...
Yeah - everything from Computer Hard Drives going, to water damage at the studio - it was a lot of work!
And, of course you had to break up recording sessions by going out on tour several times - most noticeably on the Gigantour with Megadeth, Dream Theater and others: I imagine you were all quite pleased to get it finished!
Oh yeah! But still, even for as long as it took - and with all the problems along the way - we knew it was sounding great: we were really achieving what we set out to do. We went to a lot of detail in the making of this record: trying out lots of different microphone and production techniques - really striving to do something cool and to get the best. We wanted to make sure this record didn't have any weaknesses.
You do your recording and all the production at your own studio: I suppose the great advantage of this is that you can take as long as you need to really refine every detail - but the down side must be that you that sometimes you might benefit from a fresh pair of ears to get the fresh perspective that an outside producer can provide. Have you ever thought about working with another producer?
I don't know. We kind of know what we want and we're at the point now where we...that’s a tough one! It’s always good to have an outside guy, as long as they really understand what you're doing. It depends on loads of things - although I know that it would be nice just to go in there, do the playing, and not have to worry about all the other stuff!
What amps and guitars did you mainly use for ‘Paradise Lost’?
I used Caparison’s: originally, they sent me some Dellingers that I didn't really like, but then we went ahead and did a signature model which I'm using now as my main guitar. For amps I used the Engl 'Fireball'; for the last couple of years I've had one at my studio and they've been my main recording amp for a while: even on ‘The Odyssey’ I used it a lot - so by the time we did ‘Paradise Lost’ it was pretty much all the Engl. For the recent tours I went ahead totally with Engl and I'm working with them now properly: it's all the 'Fireball' and the 'Powerball' now.
You were quite heavily involved with Line 6 at one point...
Yeah, I used Line 6 for a while - especially live, because of the convenience of it. You get the head and all the effects are built in. The sounds are consistent, and the pedal board hooks up real easy and all of that - but maybe at the expense of a little tonal richness, so you've got to sacrifice outright tonal purity for ease of use. Now we're at the point where it's not an issue to ship big gear out to wherever we're playing, so I went ahead and just put together a whole new rig without any compromises.
What are you doing for effects now then?
Well, in the studio not much really - maybe I'll put a bit of delay on certain parts - but live, I've just picked up this TC Electronics 'G System' and its got the rack unit, but also the steel floor unit that's really sturdy: it's just a great thing! It does all the amp channel switching - along with your effects patch's - so it acts pretty much like the centre of your whole system.
A bit like one of those Bob Bradshaw rigs from the 80's then?
Yeah, very much so: it also has room for all your analog pedals like the Tubescreamer and everything - it's definitely an awesome 'all in one' kind of thing: it really does do everything! So, the live rig is really simple: the TC for any effects, the Powerball is my main head and the Fireball is in there for splitting the signal to run my sound in stereo.
A lot of players use a compressor in there to boost your lead signal?
Nah... also I only got the TC maybe a week before we left for the tour, so I set it up really basic - a little delay on the lead sound and a bit of choruses on the clean. Usually I'd have a little bit of compression on the clean sounds - but I didn't even bother with that this time, as everything sounds really good out front so I didn't want to muddy it all up.
What gauge string do you use?
Well, we tune down a whole step so everything in D - so I'm using 10-46's.
I imagine you have pretty low action...
Not really: I mean I don't like it too low because especially with the Chordy stuff you cant dig in as much - and with the bends you can fret out and lose some of the sustain - equally, it can't be super high because of all the legato stuff: so I think my action's pretty standard really... it's definitely not super low...
What picks do you use?
I'm with a company called U-Tune and its pretty much the same pick as a Dunlop Jazz III.
The big one or the small one?
It’s like the little red ones...
They seem to be pretty much the pick of choice for technical and shred type players...
Yeah, I know a lot of guys use them: they seem especially good for the fast picking stuff as they don't give - you’re pretty close to the string so you don't have a lot of play - it's definitely more accurate for me.
The Metal Industry
Are you happy with the response to the new album - it's been out for a while now and, along with some higher profile tours, it really does seem - at least in Europe - that the band’s profile has never been greater...
Well, the album has been doing really well. We got a lot of new fans from the tour with Dream Theater: that was a real big success and got a lot of new people to see what we're about. Yeah, the album sales gave been pretty strong, so it’s been a great year!
How did this do in the US - I hear you had your highest chart placing to date?
Yeah, here in the States it’s doing well - we did videos for this record and they've been on Headbangers Ball and MTV - you know, things are going great now. And, I think it's our best album too - it's a really strong record, the songs are all strong and it’s doing a lot of good things for us.
'The Odyssey' took things up to another level for you: do you think that when this has run its cycle this will do the same again?
Yeah I mean I think it has - it's already outsold 'The Odyssey' in a lot of places
Oh yeah, already: I mean, it’s only been out since June and it’s already beat 'The Odyssey' in lots of countries - and that was out in like 2002! And, a lot more has happened to us with all the tours and our profile is the highest it’s ever been.
Why do you think that is - has the Dream Theater tour helped a lot?
Oh, definitely: the venues have been a lot bigger and so we're in a great place at the moment!
Did you and Mr Petrucci swap lickS much?
Yeah - we'd hang out and talk shop, noodle around showing each other some licks and stuff... Just watching those guys: they're all frigging incredible! John... he's just a great guy and we get along real good - just hanging out talking about gear and playing the guitar - like guitar players all do when they get together! It was definitely a cool thing.
Of course you guys are all from the same area aren't you?
Yeah - they're from New York and we're like right over in New Jersey, so we know where we're all coming from you know?
You do a few outside projects - such as the excellent Ayeron albums. How do these come about - do you get recordings sent over to your studio?
Yeah that's usually how it is: like I did that thing with Arjen for the Ayeron album and some stuff for the Stratavarius guys - I played on Timmo's album. You know, it's guys who you meet along the way through touring - and then you might meet up again at Festivals and everything - and you become good friends with these guys: so it's often like "Oh I'm doing a solo album - do you wanna come and do some playing on it?" Like the Drover brothers from Megadeth: they had their own record and I played on that - and it's definitely a cool thing just to step away from the band a little and kinda do something different.
It seems as if there's quite a big sort of progressive metal community going on nowadays, with a lot more bands/projects - like the aforementioned Ayeron, Stratavarius, Pain of Salvation, Vanden Plas and Circus Maximus - operating at a higher level than in the past. Compared to when Symphony X started, can you sense a difference?
Oh yeah - a lot more people are into it now. I think with us, we're still kind of in that circle of the bands you mentioned - but with the new album it's a little heavier, and more towards the metal side of things: we're kinda in between all those things. When I look at Symphony X now there's still that progressive element, but it's definitely more of a 'metal' band - so we're just doing our own thing. When we're writing a song it's never like "Oh, lets make this one heavier" or: "We need some progressive stuff here" - it’s always where the song naturally leads us, you know? It's just: "Is that lick cool?" or: "Is that song rocking?" And that's all that matters.
Your name has come up increasingly in interviews with newer players (and metal/shred guitar fans in general); have you heard any of these new guys? It seems as if they're essentially doing their own versions of what you and Petrucci and the rest were doing - but repackaged for a new generation...
Well, I think that's good: with these new younger bands keeping on doing what we and the other bands started - it's good, it's healthy - and it just helps everyone out. The scene gets bigger for all of us, so it’s definitely a real cool thing!
Are they're any new players out there you rate?
Man, there's a lot of great players out there... too many to name, but it's cool because there are so many out there now. Back in the 90's it seemed like there were so many who couldn't even tune a guitar - let alone play in tune! - and just got by on two or three chords and all that shit... But now most of the guys are really good players and that's definitely a good thing man!
How much do you need to practise nowadays to keep your chops up?
Not much.. I mean, before the show I'll warm up a little just to like limber up the fingers - and I do practise once in a while to make sure things don't get rusty - but really, the time I practise the most is before we start recording. That's when I'll really start to practise, because when you're in the studio everything's under a microscope. You've really got to be accurate. That's normally when I'll really concentrate on coming up with some new licks, trying out ideas for solos - getting down different ways to phrase and trying out new techniques - just so it's not the same old licks. That's when I'll go back to the old days when I'd practise hard every day - you know, it keeps you fresh.
Have you any ability/desire to be able to play over ‘jazz changes’ - a lot of guitarists who get to the highest levels technically invariably start to experiment with getting their 'jazzier' side down...
Nah...! Some jazz stuff I kinda like... but no - I've always been about the classical thing - and that's more my kinda niche. I mean, there's some good jazz stuff about - but it's something that I've no real interest in.
For me it’s always been the Classical - and not just the baroque stuff, but things like Stravinsky and the 20th Century composers. This (and a lot of the film composers) gets me a lot more excited than anything 'jazzy' and always gives me new ideas. Especially with the band too: when we knew the new album was going to be 'Paradise Lost' it was obvious that there would need to be some of the orchestral element in there. Get in the choirs and stuff - you need to go for a kinda 'filmy', bombastic, epic, and dark sound... and jazz ain't that, you know?!
Having said that, one facet of your playing is that you do use a lot ‘outside’ phrases in your solos - in particular, you use the Whole Tone scale a fair amount: how do you approach integrating that into your playing? It’s not one of the more common scales in metal...
Well, just by noodling around. Earlier on, when I was trying to put my own style together, I'd just write out some chord progressions and record them with a drum machine. I'd try and play over them and just try out every possible scale that came to me that might work out. If it was something simple like a C Major type of thing, I knew that the first choices would be a simple C Ionian scale or a C Lydian, but then I'd try to alter it and get into the Melodic or Harmonic minor modes - and then eventually you're trying the Diminished scales and the Whole Tone scales...
You just have to try and see what different things work according to the musical situation that you might find you're in... what kind of phrases and different placement of timing works, and all those things - just trying stuff out. Also I'd be listening to a little Allan Holdsworth too - I mean he's got his own thing entirely! - and try to use all those real unusual scales and harmony choices: try all of that and, y'know, you'll get there...
Your tapping - as discussed earlier - is a seamless part of your playing approach: have you ever studied any specific tappers of note, such as Greg Howe?
Oh yeah - Greg Howe's a crazy player! He's another one that's got a good vocabulary of licks - a lot of that cool tapping stuff, but also he's got a lot of that Van Halen sense of playing in his earlier stuff, more that kinda rock thing than his later Fusion approach. I mean, I was into all that Shrapnel stuff like Paul Gilbert: you know, Marty Friedman and Jason Becker were amazing - I was pretty big on those guys!
When the first Cacophony came out - that's like the perfect example of getting into the diminished scales and using some of the dissonances: that album is a pretty big inspiration for that kinda thing - y'know the unusual and exotic scales - Friedman with the Japanese scales and that kinda thing...
I hear Tony Macalpine in some of your phrasing - did you ever check out some of his stuff?
Oh yeah, yeah him too y'know; like I said, ALL those Shrapnel guys were real influential when I was growing up. Y'know, looking back, all this started with me from Randy Rhoads - and then from Randy I got to hear Al Di Meola and Uli Jon Roth - and then of course there was Malmsteen! After that there was Gilbert, Macalpine and all those guys. There were so many good guitar players then and everyone had their own thing going on too: Gilbert had his ridiculous picking, Cacophony and Friedman had their cool phrases and exotic scales - a wide and diverse amount of styles that was really exciting.
Have you any aspirations to do your own solo album again - after all, things have changed since 'the Dark Chapter'...
It's always something I have in the back of my mind - y'know, when we're off from Symphony X for a little bit I crack into some of my own stuff. I keep on adding bits and recording some little pieces - and just kinda keep it together: but it's tough because the biggest thing that I have a problem with is doing something, having to stop due to the band - and then coming back to it months later. It can be hard to keep the momentum up.
Finally, any advice for aspiring pro guitarists?
Yeah - the usual thing: practise loads, but even more it's what you practise that's important. Like you get all these guys who are so worried about speed and how fast you can do all those techniques - but it all really boils down to what you're saying as a player - developing your own voice.
What's really helped me the most over the years has been laying down rhythm tracks, getting a drum machine on there and just improvising over them. Make sure that you do this a lot, and concentrate on trying to get your own style together. You need to create a fluid way of integrating lots of different phrases - using different scales and arpeggios - and make sure you record it and listen. Really listen back to what you've played and be critical - see what works and what doesn't - try and stop repeating yourself all the time as well! Gradually you'll build your own style and your own vocabulary. Stop being concerned with whether you are as fast as this guy - or how fast you can do that technique: stop just chasing the highest metronome speed you can get, or any of that shit! It really doesn't matter - I mean, of course you want to be fast and accurate enough to do what you have to do - but you want to really concentrate on actually saying something you know?
There was definitely a time when it was all about the speed and I think that's what turned a lot of people off this sort of playing. The whole Shredder thing became negative, and it got kinda stupid. Sure, use your speed - but use it in the same way that you use your bending and vibrato: all are important.
So my advice is don't overlook anything, it’s all equally important: the theory and the techniques, they're all tools you need in order to develop your own style: gradually you'll get there!