“I wanted the orchestral parts to be overblown, with a lot of guitars” – Symphony X’s Michael Romeo talks to Lotsofmuzik about his solo album “War of the Worlds Part I”
One of the most influential guitar players of the last fifteen years, Michael Romeo is back with a new release. While his band Symphony X Is in hiatus, he took time to record his first solo album, entitled “War of the Worlds Part I”. It’s a concept album, which uses the famous H.G. Wells novel of the same name as a starting point, but expands on the story and addresses all kinds of conflicts that humanity is going through right now: religion politics, differences of opinion etc. As the title indicates, there will be a sequel to this release, which is partially recorded already. Lotsofmuzik’s collaborator Rodrigo Altaf had a chance to discuss the new album with Michael Romeo, and talk about the current state of the music business, the idea of touring in support of the new album, future plans for Symphony X and much more. Check it out below:
Lotsofmuzik: First of all, congratulations on the new album “War of the Worlds” (notorious H.G. Wells novel), which for me has a mesmerizing effect – I can’t stop listening to it since I got it!
Michael Romeo: Thanks so much, that does mean a lot!
Lotsofmuzik: This is not exactly a sequence to your first solo effort, “The Dark Chapter”, right? It’s a completely different beast!
MR: Yeah the Dark Chapter was just a demo, really. I did it in 1991 or something like that, and I did it at home! I didn’t have any gear, and just did it for fun. But when Symphony X got the first deal with a Japanese label I had sent them that demo, and they said “can we put it out?” and I said “sure, go ahead”. But I didn’t have a nice studio or good equipment or anything like that. So to me, “War of the Worlds Part I” really is my first solo record. The production is professional, we have real guys playing on the album, and some good equipment nowadays, and guitars that stay in tune [laughs], so it’s “the real deal” now.
Lotsofmuzik: In this record you have also of John “JD” DeServio (bass) and John Macaluso (drums), and Rick Castellano on vocals. How did each piece of the puzzle in the lineup came into the band?
MR.: I just wanted guys I knew, and friends. Guys I hang out with and that I know are great musicians. I’ve known John Macaluso for years, and when I thought of doing a solo record, it made sense to invite him, nad I called him as soon as I decided to record this album. With JD, I went to high school with him, so we’ve known each other forever. He lives nearby and we’ve always thought about doing something. And Rick, again, we’re friends. We’ve known each other for six years or something like that, and I met him just jamming with some friends one day. Every once in a while I catch up with old high school friends to jam and have a few beers, and Rick came down one day. I remembered him being really good and we got along well. As soon as I thought of doing a solo record, I thought of inviting him to sing. So it was pretty mcuch dudes I’m friends with. It was all about having a good environment during the recording and having fun.
Lotsofmuzik: The starting point for the album were the choice of title and the general musical direction. To what extent were the other musicians allowed to contribute to the writing of the album?
MR.: Mostly recording. When I write my material I usually use a drum machine and some bass here and there, but it’s kinda rough, like a sketch. But the song will be the song. I sent the stuff over to Macaluso and told him “add your own thing. Don’t change the song totally, but if you have a cool fill or a beat, just do it!”. And the same with JD, “if you have a little something, go for it, and add your own thing – maybe at the end of the song, do a big finale riff or something”. But with the lyrics and the melodies, me Rick and I collaborated. We sat down here in the studio for a little bit, went through every song, and tried all kinds of different stuff. So yeah, when it came to lyrics and melodies, Rick and I worked together.
Lotsofmuzik: Regarding the lyrics, you mentioned that the "War of the Worlds” is not necessarily Earth versus aliens, but also war in religions, politics etc. It seems to be the appropriate time to talk about how divisive our society has become, right?
MR.: Wow, yeah, it is, dude…everything’s all fucked up right now!!! [laughs]. With the music, I knew I wanted to have this big cinematic thing, a little it of the Star Wars thing going on. And with the lyrics, I didn’t want to retell the novel exactly, or sing about flying saucers in the lyrics, and ray-guns etc. It would get to be too much of the same thing over and over. Me and Rick were just talking and we said “what else can we do”. And we thought, what if the “words” meant all these other things and wars and conflicts that are going on. Like you said, everything is so divided now, there’s so much conflict going on with the littlest things…so we could still keep the War of the Worlds and keep the backdrop of the sci-fi thing, but maybe throw a couple of lines here and there that kind of put a little bit of light on some of this other stuff. I’m not a political or religious dude, I’m just making an observation, I’m not preaching anything.
Lotsofmuzik: I guess from a lyrical standpoint, the songs that addresses that headfirst on the album is the aptly called “Differences”, right?
M.R.: Oh yeah! I mean, they all have a little bit. Djinn has a little bit of that as well – religion and politics primarily, between all of us there’s always differences of opinion and problems with someone else all the time.
Lotsofmuzik: “Believe” for me is the song where you get closer to the prog metal soundscape – but did you feel conscious during the writing process to distance yourself from the Symphony X sound?
M.R.: Yeah, I didn’t want it to sound exactly like Symphony X. Some of the riffs and other things I do kind of sound like Symphony X obviously, but I didn’t want it to be exactly the same. I didn’t really want keyboard solos on the album, but wanted the guitar and the orchestra to be playing a lot. Even in “Believe”, there’s that prog and melodic thing going on, but right in the middle I thought “I’m gonna break into the orchestra here with the guitar and go off on a tangent”. And there’s some electronic stuff with the robots’ thing and even some dubstep! I though Symphony X would never do such a thing, so I said “I’m gonna do that!”. I did want it to be different.
Lotsofmuzik: You just touched on the song I was going to address now, so let’s talk about probably the most controversial song in this release – from the title to the dubstep sounds – “Fucking Robots”. Do you think fans will have a hard time understanding that track?
M.R.: [laughs] I think it’s a cool song, we all had fun with it. It’s just a different thing, and a mix of different stuff. There is a little bit of dubstep, but also some heavy guitars, the orchestra is there too, and it’s just something different than usual. I think that at first people will might think it’s really weird, but if you listen to it, it sounds really cool. But that’s what you gotta do – be creative, try different stuff, or else, it’s just the same old shit. I love that track, I sit and listen to it these days and it makes me laugh, because it’s so different and so ridiculous, but it’s fucking fun, man, it’s just music!
Lotsofmuzik: What was the inspiration behind the three skulls on the cover, and who drew it?
M.R.: I was working with this artist I know, his name is Drake Mefestta, and he’s done some covers for other bands too. I told him what the album was and that I wanted a sci-fi vibe, a little dark and kind of alien-ish and maybe a little Geiger. When I said Geiger he brought the skulls and the alien texture thing in the sketches, and what he came up with really fits.
Lotsofmuzik: Just like many of the Symphony X albums, there’s a lot of orchestration and film score sounds, but here it’s blown out of proportion really – have you ever considered doing an actual movie soundtrack?
M.R.: Oh yeah, I’ve done a couple! And I’m just kind of getting it going right now, I did a horror film back in September, a TV show and another film, and had lots of fun doing that! It’s hard to make money with music these days, so I’m just trying to do whatever I can. Eventually these things will be released, and I can talk about it a little more. The horror movie was really fun, it’s an old school horror film with an 80’s vibe, kinda like Jaws or Friday the 13th. I grew up with that type of movie, so I was really excited to do that! That’s fun to do as well.
Lotsofmuzik: And have you had a chance to sit down with your hero John Williams yet?
M.R.: That will never happen man! [laughs]
Lotsofmuzik: Maybe it will, who knows?
M.R.: I would never waste his time man…he’s gotta keep writing and keep it going man! There’s a lot of dudes that really inspired me growing up: Randy Rhoads of course, Van Halen and Yngwie, Sabbath and Priest...that was a big part of my life, and with the classical music too, I was into Stravinski and guys like that. But even since I was a kid, I loved film music: Star Wars, Superman, E.T., Indiana Jones and Jaws…those are classics ingrained in everybody’s brains. So he’s a genius! I totally respect him, just like all my guys, it doesn’t matter if they’re shredders, metal guys, prog guys or film guys…if it’s good shit, it’s good shit!!! [laughs]
Lotsofmuzik: And t bring back he subject of “War of the Worlds” again, apparently Part II is almost halfway through, right?
M.R.: Yeah. When I started to write, I was writing every day, and I knew what I wanted to do, I wanted to have like you said, I wanted a little more orchestra, and the orchestration to be overblown, and with the guitar a lot too. Everyday I had a new idea, and things were moving. And after five months or so, I went back and looked at everything, it was like, more than two hours. And I said “what the hell man, let’s start recording everything”. We did the drums for everything, bass and rhythm guitars and some of the vocals. But when it came to the lyrics, it was kind of getting tough – there was so much stuff! So we said maybe let’s just work on the first bunch of songs, and then at some point we’ll come back and finish. Let’s just try to make this first half as good as we can. So yeah, most of it is done, and if this album does well and people dig it, then the other one really wouldn’t require too much time to be done. But part II is in the same vein – obviously the songs are different, but everything was written at the same time, so a lot of of the themes come back, or the theme is backward, and there’s some kind of variation on something, an all our musical tricks are there, so it’s the same vibe.
Lotsofmuzik: I think it’s a great strategy to release part I and then part II because it’s not too demanding on the listener. It’s a concept and a story but it’s not difficult for the listener to absorb.
M.R.: I think that doing a double record is just too much, even for me. That’s a lot to take in, so yeah, we decided to split it. I want people to absorb the first one for a while, and then we’ll put out the second record. They’ll complement each other, but they’ll also be a bit different
Lotsofmuzik: And you also said that initially you didn’t really have expectations to play this material live, but now you’re considering doing a tour or a few shows here and there.
M.R.: Yeah, it depends on a lot. When I started the record, I thought of having fun and invite some buddies. And even recording, it was ok to put the orchestra everywhere, and all these extra guitars, and the synths everywhere, because we didn’t know if we were ever doing this live. We said “let’s just make it sound good now, and if we do it live, we’ll worry about that later”. But it’s not written in stone. We’re waiting to see what’s going on with Symphony X. We’ve been talking about what our next move is going to be, so there are a lot of pieces being moved around the board, so to say. So we’re taking it day by day, and figuring out what the plan is going to be.
Lotsofmuzik: I can only imagine the headaches you’re going to have while trying to make the material work on a live setting, right?
M.R.: I mean, it would be hard to do, because I kinda like to have an orchestra live, even if it’s a small one, because so much of it IS the orchestra. I would hate to have four dudes playing along with a tape recorder. I’d rather have more human beings on stage. But then we get into money and other aspects, so it’s really impossible to say right now. A lot of it depends on what Symphony X’s next move is gonna be. I mean I just got this thing done, it didn’t even come out yet! [laughs]. So let’s take it day by day.
Lotsofmuzik: You’re regarded as one of the main guitar players of our generation - to what extent do you care or listen to those compliments, and who do you measure yourself against these days?
M.R.: I don’t go looking for compliments, I’m just doing my thing! I’m a chill guy who likes to write and play, and try to be creative and challenge myself when I’m writing or playing. I’m probably my toughest critic. When I’m tracking or playing or even just writing – I’m constantly asking myself “how can I make it the best I can make it”. I’m pretty tough on myself all the freaking time. But you gotta be, or else the stuff you write or play will just be tired-sounding and not exciting. I still get excited from writing – thank God! [laughs]
Lotsofmuzik: What fascinates me in your playing is how gritty you sound when you're riffing, and how clear you sound doing solos. What's your secret to achieve that, especially in a live setting?
M.R.: I don’t know, I just play! [laughs]. I really don't know. Usually the sound is basically one sound dialed in and obviously it's a little heavy but it's not too dirty where there's no clarity. So yeah, if I'm setting up my amp or whatever, it's just finding that balance. With the rhythm stuff I can dig in a little, make it heavy, but the solo stuff I can kind of move around and it's kind of fluid sounding and, and the notes are popping out. So yeah man, no crazy trick just, and even on the rhythms, like I said, maybe playing a little harder digging in to get it a little more of that aggressive sound and on the solos a different approach. Yeah, no magic tricks man! [laughs]
Lotsofmuzik: Do you find that your career path is exactly what you envisioned when you first started or not? And would you consider playing other styles of music?
M.R.: Man, that's a good question. I think kind of. When I was young I just wanted to be in a band and play music and so it's like, oh, I guess I'm doing that now. So no, I didn't know that, you know, none of us knew that the whole music industry was going to get turned upside down and financially now for a lot of guys I know and myself and everybody, it's just like, it's really hard to be musician now and make money and do it. It's just a different time. So yeah, I didn't see that coming [laughs].
Lotsofmuzik: I don't think anybody saw that coming to be honest. It is a complete shift in the music industry like 10 years ago or 15 years ago, right?
M.R.: Over the last ten years I would say is when I really noticed it. And the thing that sucks is I don't see a lot of new metal bands, like the big army of metal bands that…when Symphony x was getting going, every time you turned around there was a new band. And it was just an exciting time. But a lot of the kids now like their phones and their video game and they like electronic music and DJs, and everybody wants to be a DJ. And guitar shops are in financial trouble because these kids just aren't buying music instruments. That's scary. But I get it because it would be really hard, with the way that the business is now for bands to start fresh and really go through the normal way that it was years ago, when all the bands were doing that kind of thing. Now it's, just different.
Lotsofmuzik: And with Symphony X, these days you’re the torchbearers of the more traditional side of prog metal – which bands of the new batch of prog metal you listen to?
M.R.: I mean over the last couple of years, I can't think of too many that I've heard that are new. Honest to god. I mean I can't, and I don't even know what we would consider prog these days - there's just so many sub genres of that! So that's a tough one to answer. Even if you asked me whatever new bands I heard in the last year or two? I don't know if I can name any. I'm serious. I mean there's a few out there, but you know, it was just talking to my buddy about this yesterday: Slayer’s going to be gone, Sabbath and Rush are done, and eventually everyone's going to start to dip out and then where's the next Slayer? Where’s the next Rush, you know? I don't really see the whole new generations of kids carrying the torch for whatever, for metal and prog or whatever it is. It just seems like a different time, you know, things are kinda changed. A little scary.
Lotsofmuzik: I’m a long time fan, and saw Symphony X in Rio in 2016. The long time fans are wondering if/when we’re gonna have a live DVD release!
M.R.: Oh God, I don't even know man. I mean it's something that we had always talked about and it just never materialized. And then the whole last year was really a difficult time for the band because Russel [Allen, singer] said he wanted to spend a little time with his band Adrenaline Mob, and try to get that moving a little. And it's like, okay. And then our bassist [Mike] Lepond did a solo record. I decided to do this one and then this terrible tragedy happened with those guys and the accident [the Adrenaline Mob tourbus had an accident which ended up with the tour manager and the bass player passing away]. And I can't even imagine what they all went through. I talked to Russ a couple of weeks ago and when you go through something so awful, it kind of puts your life in perspective, in maybe changes your priorities a little bit, right? So we were talking, I said, “hey man, I get it dude”. You've been through a lot, so take some time to yourself and sort it out. Just sort out whatever you're thinking and then you just kind of let us know, you know what we're going to do. So right now we’re taking it easy and I'm kind of giving him some space to sort things out. But no definite thing. At some point we'll regroup and, and get everything back in.
Lotsofmuzik: That’s great to hear! And have you listened to the other endeavours of your bandmates in Symphony X? Silent Assassins, Adrenaline Mob, Pinella’s solo albums etc.?
M.R.: Yeah man, I hear all their stuff! When Russ finished their last album he played a little bit for me. And Lepond’s band, we did a lot of recording here - I helped them out a lot doing it. So yeah, I heard, I heard it a lot! [laughs]. And it's all good. Everybody's got their different things, Lepond likes old school metal and, Pinella, you know, he likes the keyboard stuff obviously, and I hear a little bit of Yes. And you can tell what I like – metal riffs, Stravinsky and John Williams stuff. Everybody in Symphony X has their own little thing, just trying to be creative. But yeah, like I said, at some point, we're going to regroup. I just talked to Lepond the day before yesterday, he was checking in. So we're all talking and they know that I just finished this new album too. So they've given me a little time just to do what I need to do. So it's a healthy thing, you know, after so many years of us together all the time, everybody just took a little break to do some other things that they've always wanted to do. So totally a normal thing.
Lotsofmuzik: Would you consider some sort of vehicle to pass your knowledge along – maybe Skype lessons, or more clinics?
M.R.: I might. I would rather try to put everything I know into some kind of master class series or something. Some could be about theory and some could be about guitar and picking or tapping and it could be about how to think about building a solo or a riff or putting a song together in harmony and theory. It would be cool to do that. It would take a shit ton of time to put it all together, but I’s one of those things I always think about. I'm always thinking about those things and again, it's like a time thing and I finally had time to do this solo record and at some point, you know, with Symphony X we're going to be moving ahead again. With Symphony X I just spent so much time writing and we're doing all the recording here at my place, so it's a full time job every day. But yeah, I consider anything.
Lotsofmuzik: Thank you so much for your time, and all the best with the new release! I hope to see you back on the road at some point, either with Symphony X or promoting your solo album!
M.R.: Yeah, at some point, either with Symphony X, or with the new album, it’s gonna happen.
Lotsofmuzik: I'll keep my fingers crossed. All the best, man!
M.R.: Yeah, nice talking to you, man, Take care!
Michael Romeo’s “War of the World’s Part I” comes out in July 27th, via Music Theories Recordings / Mascot Label Group. The tracklisting and personnel is shown below:
02. Fear Of The Unknown
04. F*cking Robotos
08. War Machine
Michael Romeo - Guitars
Rick Castellano – Vocals
John Macaluso – Drums
John “JD” DeServio - Bass
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